For every Rhode Islander who has died from a drug overdose, someone is left behind to grieve. And that grief can be complicated. Finding help for dealing with that grief in the Ocean State can be tough.
Cathy Fennelly lost her 21-year-old son to a heroin and fentanyl overdose last year. Tonight, she’s dealing with that loss in a boxing gym, south of Boston.
Fennelly is a petite hairdresser from Quincy. She waits near the gym’s entrance to welcome the other moms who have lost sons or daughters. They’re members of a grief group Fennelly started called Let It Out. There’s no formal sharing or sitting in a circle. It’s all about throwing jabs and uppercuts at a forest of punching bags.
“I call it anger management. Because it’s really what you’re doing.”
Fennelly says when she lost her son, she couldn’t find any resources to help her cope. Grieving after an overdose is different, Fennelly says. First, there’s the stigma. No one wants to talk about it. There’s the sadness and anger of course. That’s mixed with remorse – this feeling that she could have done more to save him. And then, Fennelly admits, there’s even a little relief.
“Watching my son struggle and self-destruct for eight years, knowing that no matter how hard I tried, no matter how many detoxes I put him in, no matter how many mental facilities…."
Nothing worked, she says. She told him he couldn’t come home unless he was in treatment. She worried he would be cold, on the streets, but she didn’t how else to save him. And then one night she found him, dead from an overdose, on her front steps.
"It was a sense of relief when he passed, not in a sense, it was just that was gone. He wasn’t hurting anymore.”
It’s not that Fennelly wouldn’t do anything to have him back for even just a day. She would. But it’s complicated, this grief after an overdose.
“We have a saying, some of the moms that I’m close to. Nobody brought us casseroles when our child died.”
No one brought casseroles, says Denise Cullen, who lost her son Jeff to a heroin overdose, because when it comes to a death like this, people keep their distance.
“There’s all this misunderstanding about people who use drugs. It can happen to anybody. … And if it’s your kid, all of a sudden it’s your fault, you’re a bad parent, your kid’s a bad kid.”
Cullen helped found a support group called GRASP, or Grief Recovery After Substance Passing. That’s because when she lost her son in 2008, she couldn’t find any resources to help her cope either.
“I’m a licensed clinical social worker, so I’m pretty good at finding resources, and also have worked in death and dying. My population was end stage AIDS for many years. And I couldn’t find anything, nothing, even books didn’t talk about it. They would talk about murder, suicide, or other stigmatized losses, but not this.”
Since then GRASP groups have popped up in more than 100 cities and towns. But there’s no chapter in Rhode Island.
There are support groups for people still living with addicts, like Learn2Cope. It’s for parents and others with a loved one addicted to opioids. It got started on the East Coast a few years ago, but no one has been able to get a chapter going in Rhode Island. It’s not clear why. The closest group meets in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and some Rhode Islanders make the drive.
At this Learn2Cope meeting, about 30 people take a seat facing a long speakers’ table. Books and pamphlets are on display, along with home drug testing kits. Everyone here has a loved one addicted to heroin or another opioid. And many attendees still have hope their loved one will recover. As the meeting gets started, a woman raises her hand to tell the group she’s just told her son he can’t come home until he gets into treatment. But….
“I’ve still got my hope light on. I’m still hoping," hoping her son will recover before it’s too late. As the meeting continues, members talk about the disease of addiction. They share information about treatment options for their loved ones. Someone suggests members keep Narcan on hand, in case their loved one overdoses.
But for so many New Englanders, the worst has already happened, like it did to Cathy Fennelly.
“I can’t go to Learn2Cope anymore because when people talk about their addict it puts me right back into that same situation with my son. It’s like reopening scabs.”
Tonight the women of her boxing grief group Let It Out get some tips on punching from a coach who donates his time.
“That’s it nice and easy. You don’t have to try and kill it. you want to turn your hips let your big muscles do the work….breathe out through your mouth. In through your nose.”
There’s no Let It Out group in Rhode Island yet, but Fennelly is on a mission to start chapters wherever they’re needed. She says boxing doesn’t ease the pain. That never goes away, but it focuses her energy on something else for a while.
“Focus on the bag. Don’t forget to let it out. Whatever you dealt with this week, because you know the minute you leave here and pick up the phone in the car, it’s all going to start over again.”
These days mothers and fathers call Fennelly all the time because they’ve lost someone to overdose too, and they’ve heard about her group. They want to know when they can throw the first punch.