By Connie Berry
Statistics on death by drug overdose show a sharp increase over the past 20 years. An article from the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs written in 2007 states that “death by overdose is loaded with social/moral stigmas, in addition to strong feelings of anger, helplessness, guilt and shame in the families.”
HOPE for Bereaved, 4500 Onondaga Blvd., Syracuse, offers free bereavement counseling sessions for both individuals and groups. The organization was founded by Therese Schoeneck after the death of her young daughter. Schoeneck said HOPE saw a real need to address parents and families who have gone through the death of a child by drug overdose.
“We find that in grieving, people want to be with other people who have gone through the same thing,” Schoeneck said. “We try to offer groups as close to people’s experience as we can. We continue to make our groups as specific as possible to meet their needs.”
HOPE offers groups for parents whose children have died, but the facilitators say it is a whole other experience for parents who lose children through drug overdose. Betsy Gallagher, director of nursing at Hutchings Psychiatric Center in Syracuse, and Darlene Black, whose son died of a drug overdose in 2006, will be co-facilitators for the group. They plan to offer the first meeting on April 20 and continue to meet the third Wednesday of each month at the center beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Black, who also works at Upstate Hospital in the psychiatric department, brings her own experience to the group. Her son Christopher began his drug use innocently enough when he was prescribed painkillers after a compound fracture of his ankle. He also had an addiction to alcohol, Black explained. Before long, heroin was also part of his disease. Black said Christopher was always someone who “pushed the envelope.”
“He loved dirt bikes, snowmobiles,” Black said. “He’d ride off and you would just see this cloud of dust or snow. You know, kids just think they’re invincible. They don’t think it will happen to them.”
Black said she wasn’t aware of the extent of Christopher’s addiction. He was living with his girlfriend when he died and he had just found out she was expecting a baby. He had heard the baby’s heartbeat just the day before he died. Black’s granddaughter was born six months to the day after Christopher died.
Black came to HOPE for help in dealing with her son’s death and now she will be in the position to help other parents. “I want to make them feel better and to let them know they aren’t alone,” Black said. “They need to know there’s nothing they could have done differently. You keep asking yourself, ‘Why? Was I a bad parent?’ They need to be able to talk about it.”
Parents are reluctant to talk about their child dying of a drug overdose, Black explained. There is underlying guilt that goes along with the grief of losing a child. Betsy Gallagher said every death, no matter the cause, brings grief, but the stigma that comes with a drug-related death puts it in a league of its own. There are misconceptions and a lack of education about addiction, she said, which makes the process of understanding a drug overdose even more challenging.
“Parents need to understand that their child had an addictive disease and that their drug use really wasn’t a choice. Most kids don’t want to be addicted to drugs to the point that they steal from their parents and have no control over their need for the drugs,” Gallagher said. “It’s the 21st century and we are so very uneducated about addiction and mental illness. It’s not a choice and they aren’t bad parents because their child got into drugs.”
A current trend, Gallagher said, is addiction to prescription drugs that the children may first experience by taking some from their parents. For some reason, she said, there is a belief that because the drug has a prescription people tend to think it’s “okay.” Recreational use of drugs and alcohol can quickly turn into a full blown addiction with serious side effects. “Addiction is terminal,” Gallagher said. “It’s terminal and it comes without compassion [from others]. It isn’t like someone dying of cancer.”
The two women are looking forward to helping others who are going through the grieving process. They see a need for this new group and also a need for the same type of group for teenagers who have experienced the loss of a loved one through a drug overdose. Both groups, they say, need to be able to talk about their experience in a stress-free environment where they will not be judged. They hope to form another group to address the needs of young people.
“HOPE is great. It offers a lot of service for no payment and it offers not a formal group therapy really, but a very supportive atmosphere where you can tell your story without judgement. I see people make great strides all the time,” Gallagher said. “The first time you come, you can meet alone with someone to see if you are really ready for a group. You watch people progress and they keep coming because it is so supportive.”
For more information, call HOPE for Bereaved at (315) 475-9675.