Imagine trying to wake your teenage son for the day and instead seeing his lifeless body.
Imagine trying to revive him, calling 911 and then screaming for paramedics not to stop CPR when they can't save him.
Then imagine realizing a similar scene is happening elsewhere in your home with another son.
Becky Savage of Granger, Ind., asks parents and students to imagine themselves in her real-life nightmare – the day she lost two of her four sons – Nick and Jack, then 19 and 18 – who both died June 14, 2015, after accidentally overdosing on alcohol and oxycodone at a graduation party.
She says her sons made "one bad decision," and wonders if they would still be alive if they knew more about the dangers of opioids and that they're especially deadly when mixed with alcohol.
In the past few years, Savage has been making sure other families know "that one little pill can kill somebody." She travels to schools, conferences and other events to tell her story, hoping students will make better choices and spare their parents from her pain. Savage and her husband, Mike, also started the 525 Foundation, a nonprofit named after their late sons' hockey numbers, aimed at providing information to parents and students about substances, especially opioids, and encouraging families to have the conversation they wish they'd had with their sons.
Experts say these messages are important for adolescents to hear at home and school year-round, but especially during prom and graduation season when more kids are likely to experiment. And real-life examples from people like the Savages can make an impact on teens.
"It still haunts me," Savage told a group of St. Charles East High School students recently as she described finding son Jack unresponsive in his bedroom on the Sunday morning that changed her family. The presentation was her first in a Chicago-area school.
"They were kids just like most of you," she said, addressing the packed, silent auditorium, as she showed photos of her family. "These were smart kids ... with bright futures who made a bad choice."
"My husband and I have racked our brains over the hows and the whys," Savage told the students. "Why wouldn't they just say no?"
'A WAKE-UP CALL'
Nick and Jack Savage, born just 18 months apart, were both outgoing, academically and athletically talented teens who were "each other's best friend," Savage said. The pair are seen smiling with their brothers and parents, arms around each other in family portraits around the Savage home.
On the night before they died, Nick – back home after his first year at Indiana University – and Jack – a recent high school graduate who planned to attend Ball State University in the fall – went with friends to a graduation party. Savage said she saw the teens come home around midnight, and then she went to bed, leaving them to fix a snack in the kitchen.
The next morning, Savage was gathering laundry in Jack's room, trying to wake him for the day. She then realized Jack wasn't breathing. Savage, a nurse, said she called 911 and started CPR as she screamed for Nick who had gone to sleep in the basement with his friends. Mike Savage was away for the weekend at the family's lake house with their two younger sons.
Paramedics arrived and continued to work on Jack, but eventually stopped and ran to the basement. Becky Savage said she didn't realize it at the time, but Nick's friends in her basement, awakened by Savage's screams, had also called 911 when they couldn't wake Nick. Then, Savage heard a paramedic call for a coroner.
Savage got word to her husband to come home, but didn't tell him their two sons had died until he arrived at the house, surrounded by emergency vehicles with flashing lights. The couple then told their younger sons later that day at their grandparents' house.
"No parent should have to do that," Becky Savage said.
The family decided not to spend another night at that home, sleeping at their nearby lake house and eventually moving to the other side of their quiet town, just outside South Bend. After a year of "healing as a family," the Savages got a request from an organization in their community to speak at a parent event about underage drinking.
They were hesitant but decided to tell their story. Becky Savage said she was expecting a small crowd, but 200 people showed up. "It was a wake-up call. It was a room filled with people who were terrified it could happen to them."
From there, schools started calling and asking Savage to speak to their students. "Maybe this is something we could put our efforts into," she said. Shortly after that, the family decided to form the 525 Foundation to promote the speaking events and focus on prevention.
"It helps me heal," Mike Savage said. "This is a legacy for (Nick and Jack)."
EARLY, OFTEN CONVERSATIONS
Becky Savage said she didn't realize the reach of the opioid problem, or that teens were using prescription drugs at parties, until her sons' death. Although she said the family talked about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, Savage said she hadn't specifically talked about prescription drugs. And she suspects she's not alone.
While there are still unanswered questions as to exactly what happened the night of the graduation party, the Savages said their sons were offered and took oxycodone there. Two teens were eventually charged with bringing drugs and alcohol to the party, but not in connection with the Savage brothers' deaths. Kyle Treber faced felony charges of distributing narcotics but eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession of a narcotic drug and was sentenced to 90 days of jail time and probation, according to court records. Lauren Schwindaman was convicted of providing alcohol to minors – a misdemeanor – and sentenced to probation, records state.
"Parents still don't realize kids are getting medication from them," Becky Savage said. "Had we known, we would've had that conversation with our kids."
Besides spreading that message to parents and students, the 525 Foundation has also initiated a pill disposal program in their town, and Becky Savage has lobbied Congress about laws surrounding medication drop-offs at pharmacies.
The organization's newest project, called Wise-Up, will create fact sheets on various substances for parents that also include conversation-starter ideas, she said.
Often parents don't have conversations about drugs and alcohol early enough, said Karen Wolownik, a social worker and executive director at Gateway Foundation who sits on the Lake County Underage Drinking and Drug Abuse Prevention Task Force.
"Parents don't want to wait until prom time," she said. "We need to start talking to our kids in (middle school)."
But Wolownik also said it's important to have those conversations again, around prom, graduation – times "when kids who haven't tried drugs ... make a choice to try."
Adolescents should also be educated about the dangers of taking a pill that isn't prescribed to them, and the dangers of mixing substances, she said. "In addition to the message of 'don't do this,' (parents) also need to educate them. They do need to understand these substances, if taken together, could be fatal."
And "parents have to be strategic with having these short conversations," Wolownik added. "They should be short but focused conversations, and have them frequently."
School administrators are also adjusting how they talk to students, said St. Charles East Assistant Principal Lisa Dandre. Several years ago, pre-prom and graduation assemblies often had a crash simulation to warn students of drunken driving, she said. Now, after hearing feedback from students, they seek out "real stories."
After telling her story to students at St. Charles East and showing a video about her sons, Becky Savage pleaded with them not to succumb to peer pressure. She asked them if they knew about an Illinois law that protects them from being arrested for drug possession if they call 911 to help a friend. Only a handful of hands went up.
"Say something; be part of the solution," she said.
Afterward, a few students lingered and thanked her and said they were sorry.
In the days that followed, one emailed Becky Savage, asking where she could find the video they'd watched.
" 'I want to watch it with my parents,' " Savage said the student wrote. "That's what we want."