Renee Puma still sleeps on the pillow her brother Patrick died on.
She wants to feel close to him, and she doesn’t want people to forget him. That’s why she wears a pin she made with a picture of the two of them — so people don’t forget his face.
In 2020, Patrick — who she affectionately called Pat — died of a fentanyl overdose.
After Pat died, Puma poured herself into art, and found purpose in helping individuals who are unhoused and struggling with substance use disorder. She paints canvases, vases, and even phone cases to express her feelings with colorful art.
Each piece she creates is signed “PAT,” which she said means “purpose after tears.”
Nearly 5,000 Ohioans died from an overdose in 2022, according to the nonprofit Harm Reduction Ohio. But even more people are grieving those 5,000 friends, siblings, parents, colleagues, including Puma.
After she lost her brother in 2020, she was stuck in the house because of the quarantine. One day she went to the river with her daughter, and she picked up a rock and decided to paint it.
One of Puma’s first paintings was a sun with a face. The sun looks down at another face that is supposed to be herself. One of the sun’s rays is a paintbrush — painting away the tears of the face. She has two paintings hanging in her living room that are silhouettes of elephants. Behind the elephants is a swirl of colors from a “pour painting” technique. Like many of Puma’s pieces, the background of the piece was done by pouring paint over the canvas and using gravity to swirl the different colors around. The longer you look at the painting the more colors you see.
“I taught myself everything,” she said. “I paint what I feel.”
Puma lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her daughter, Surreal. Surreal sleeps in the bedroom and uses it to do online school. Puma sleeps on her bed in the living room. Her art studio is in the corner of her kitchen. The wall is full of her paintings, and at her desk is a stool that she also painted. There are unique art supplies of whatever she could find, along with signs, window frames, and other pieces leaning up against her desk that are waiting to be painted.
Puma collects pieces, like lazy Susan turntables, phone cases from Dollar Tree and canvases from Goodwill. She watches painting videos and teaches herself different techniques to create her artwork.
“I learned to love colors so much more now that I paint,” she said.
Puma, 50, is originally from Staten Island, New York, and moved to Newark, Ohio to be with family. She plans to stay in Newark because she feels she has something to get done here.
When she lost her brother, she felt like she lost her purpose. As months and years went on without him, she realized her purpose was to help others. Painting is an outlet for her emotions, and she loves to give her artwork to people to make them smile.
“It feels like nobody is doing anything to help these people,” she said. “You’re not a bad person when you screw up. Everyone screws up.”
Puma believes there’s little support for unhoused people and for individuals struggling with substance use disorder in the region, and getting people help isn’t a priority for local governments.
“All these people [are] just judging and [there is] stigma because they’re ‘druggies,’” Puma said. “No. These are mentally sad people in the world that are trying to get rid of their pain in their hearts. They’re putting a bandaid on it.”
Puma, who also struggled with substance use disorder in the past, said it’s everyone’s responsibility to help. Today, Puma is more than 6 years sober.
“Stop putting bandaids,” she said. “Rip that s*** off and let’s fix this.”
She has two daughters — 13-year-old Surreal and 25-year-old Marley, a nursing student.
But she describes her brother, Pat, as her first child. They were raised in a chaotic household, and at times it felt like she was raising him. They were inseparable throughout his life. Everywhere she moved, he had come with her. Pat stayed with Puma in the hospital when she had Surreal, and he had a close relationship with her daughters.
“He was my best friend in the whole world,” she said.
Pat, an accomplished chef, was Puma’s “best friend in the whole world,” she said. He was getting ready to relocate to New Orleans for a new chef position, but overdosed and died prior to his move.
For Puma, art is how she deals with her grief. She wants to show children that there is more to life than the poor circumstances they’re experiencing, and not to give up hope.
Sometimes a bald eagle flies through Puma’s apartment complex, and when she is crying and missing her brother, she imagines it’s him swooping by.
Her neighbor brought her a whole collection of bald eagle figurines for her. She keeps them on a bookshelf: eagles perched on branches and rocks, a small one that sits on a portrait of Pat, and a wood carving of a bald eagle on top.
And sometimes, when Puma is walking along the Licking River with Surreal, a bald eagle will follow the pair, reminding them of Pat.
If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org. To learn how to get support for mental health, drug or alcohol issues, visit FindSupport.gov. If you are ready to locate a treatment facility or provider, you can go directly to FindTreatment.gov or call 800-662-HELP (4357). Naloxone is available through Harm Reduction Ohio, Newark Homeless Outreach, and Licking County Health Department.