When A Loved One Dies Of Overdose, What Happens To The Family? Grieving the loss of a loved one to drug overdose can be difficult when it is mixed with guilt and remorse. But support is scarce for those who are left behind.
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When A Loved One Dies Of Overdose, What Happens To The Family?

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When A Loved One Dies Of Overdose, What Happens To The Family?

When A Loved One Dies Of Overdose, What Happens To The Family?

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The president campaign has brought more attention to the issue of deaths from drug overdoses, but it is still often difficult for families to find support to deal with the complicated emotions of losing a loved one to addiction. We're going to go now to a boxing club that is helping grieving parents. Kristin Espeland Gourlay of Rhode Island Public Radio has the story.

KRISTIN ESPELAND GOURLAY, BYLINE: Cathy Fennelly tried to save her son. For eight years, she tried to help him beat a heroin addiction, but nothing worked.

CATHY FENNELLY: No matter how many detoxes I put him in, no matter how many mental facilities - I emptied out my 401(k). I sold my jewelry.

GOURLAY: Watching the boxers throw hooks and jabs in a gym south of Boston, she remembers the chaos of living with an addict. It was too much, and it wasn’t helping her son get sober. So she told him he couldn't come home unless he was in treatment. It tormented her knowing he might be sleeping on the streets cold at night. And then she found him dead from an overdose on her front step. That was in 2008.

FENNELLY: This will never get easier, never.

GOURLAY: Since Fennelly's son died, thousands more parents have lost sons and daughters across the country to an epidemic of accidental drug overdoses. Their grief can be complicated. There's the guilt for not doing more, the stigma surrounding this kind of death and sometimes, Fennelly admits, even relief.

FENNELLY: It was a sense of relief when he passed, not in the sense - it was just, that was gone. He wasn't hurting anymore.

GOURLAY: Fennelly knows some parents might judge her for feeling relief or blame her son for not just quitting drugs, but the other women at this boxing gym tonight have been there. They know that relief gets tossed around in endless waves of sadness and anger.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That's it, nice and easy. You don't have to try and kill it.

GOURLAY: Robyn Houston Bean is working with a coach to try to box out some anger. She's also trying to get back into shape. A year ago, she was competing in bikini-body muscle competitions. But one morning last May, she found her son Nick in bed, dead from an accidental drug overdose. She had only known about his heroin addiction for a few months.

ROBYN HOUSTON BEAN: And of course, we did everything we could. We - I got him into a detox, got him to the Mass General program. He did everything he was supposed to do for seven months.

GOURLAY: But Nick relapsed once and died - 1 of 7 to die of overdoses that weekend in Braintree, Mass. After his death, Bean mourned in private. She certainly couldn't face the gym. That's where she was headed when she found him.

BEAN: I'm going through the motions of life. I'm not really back in the world, but luckily, I found Cathy, and she got me out of the house.

GOURLAY: Cathy Fennelly, that is, the energetic founder of this boxing support group called Let It Out. There are other kinds of support groups for parents grieving children and groups for people who living with addicts. Fennelly says she used to go to those when her son was alive, but she can't anymore.

FENNELLY: Because when people talk about their addict, it puts me right back into that same situation with my son. So it was, like, reopening scabs for me.

DENISE CULLEN: We have a saying from moms that I am close to - is that, nobody brought us casseroles when our child died.

GOURLAY: This is Denise Cullen. She lost her 27-year-old son Jeff to an overdose in 2008, so she cofounded a support group called GRASP for people like her. About a hundred chapters dot the country today. Cullen says no one brought casseroles because when a child dies a stigmatized death, people keep their distance. No one knows what to say.

CULLEN: It's very isolating. So that's why having GRASP and having our Facebook page that's closed but available 24 hours a day, seven days a week with 3,000 numbers - that you have a safe place to talk about things that you can't talk about in your real life.

GOURLAY: Things like feeling like you have to lie about how your child died.

CULLEN: There's all this misunderstanding about people who use drugs, and it can happen to anybody. And if that's your kid, then all of a sudden, it's your fault. You're a bad parent. Your kid's a bad kid.

GOURLAY: And even if that's not true, parents and others grieving a loved one lost to overdosed still feel bad. Robyn Houston Bean, just finishing her workout at the boxing gym, still replays the night before she found her son, wondering whether he'd still be alive if she had done one thing differently.

BEAN: Your one job as a parent is to take care of your kid, and I couldn't. And it makes me feel, you know, like a failure as a mom.

GOURLAY: So many parents are struggling with this complicated grief now. Boxing group founder Cathy Fennelly fields calls every day about starting new chapters. For NPR News, I'm Kristin Espeland Gourlay. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we incorrectly say Cathy Fennelly's son died in 2008. He died in 2015.]

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