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‘So impactful’: NH man who lost daughter to overdose reflects on his State of the Union appearance

Doug Griffin and his daughter Courtney sit together, wearing brown, matching hoodies.
Doug Griffin
/
Courtesy

Doug Griffin remembers his daughter Courtney as a funny, happy kid who loved to travel.

“From the age of four, if you asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she never said fireman or astronaut or anything,” he said. “She had one simple answer: Hawaiian.”

As she got older, she thought about becoming a forensic pathologist. But Griffin said that faded as she developed an opioid addiction. She began using pills in high school, and later heroin.

Courtney died of a fentanyl overdose in 2014, at age 20.

On Tuesday, Doug Griffin sat in the U.S. Capitol as President Joe Biden spoke about his daughter during the State of the Union address.

“Joining us tonight is a father named Doug from Newton, New Hampshire,” Biden said, describing Courtney as someone with a “contagious laugh” who was “her sister’s best friend.”

Biden pledged to crack down on fentanyl trafficking on the southern border and through the mail, saying the synthetic opioid is killing tens of thousands of Americans each year.

“To hear the president talk about my daughter was so impactful to me, and to so many,” Griffin told NHPR two days after the speech. “I'm getting flooded with — I bet I've got 1,000 different emails.”

Courtney struggled against her addiction, he said. She tried to break with the people she hung around with, and joined the Marines to get away. Griffin said she loved the discipline and worked hard to get into shape. But they kicked her out soon after training because of a positive marijuana test.

“She came home and she was really broken,” Griffin said. “She felt like she failed.”

At one point, the family brought Courtney to a treatment facility. But during the intake procedure, her insurance company said it wouldn’t cover her treatment.

“They actually told my wife it wasn't a matter of life and death,” Griffin said. “And she died a month later.”

Griffin became an advocate after Courtney’s death. He wants to see what he calls “recovery friendly communities” — finding ways that workplaces, churches, schools and other community institutions can support people recovering from a substance use disorder.

Two years ago, he sent a letter to the White House. He asked to sit down with the Bidens and talk to them about the overdose crisis. He never heard back — until last week, when someone called to invite him to the State of the Union.

“It's just amazing what it did for me and for my cause,” he said.

Griffin, who described himself as a Republican, criticized GOP lawmakers who yelled “your fault” as Biden described fentanyl’s death toll on Tuesday.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Griffin said. “You know, we have to stop this far left and far right crap and get to work.”

Griffin said New Hampshire has made progress on the issue over the past decade, but there’s more work to be done. That includes supporting kids’ mental health early on; he thinks bullying that his daughter experienced in elementary school contributed to her later struggles with substance use.

Griffin said substance-use funding often goes to larger, better-resourced organizations. But many small, grassroots efforts to support recovery in local communities — often started by people like him, who’ve lost loved ones to addiction — don’t have enough resources.

“If I had a million dollars,” he said, “I could help 50 of these organizations get rolling and make a difference.”

Paul Cuno-Booth covers health and equity for NHPR. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Keene Sentinel, where he wrote about police accountability, local government and a range of other topics. He can be reached at pcuno-booth@nhpr.org.