Those left behind: In the aftermath of an opioid death, families find ways to cope

  • Franklin Cook, in June, talking about the work he does around the Pioneer Valley as an independent peer grief support consultant. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Cara Moser, front, is comforted by another member of Harm Reduction Works at the group’s July 31 meeting in the Northampton Recovery Center. Behind Moser is her daugther Kate Harper. To Moser’s left is her boyfriend, Jeff Shotland. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Julie Foster began attending meetings of the Harm Reduction Works group at the Northampton Recovery Center after Ahymee Lamoureux, her daughter who struggled with opioid addiction, died in May. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ahmyee Lamoureux died of an opioid overdose on May 3, 2019. Her mother, Julie Foster, keeps a journal as she grieves. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • After their son, Patrick Brown, died of an opioid overdose in 2016, Debra McNeice and Henry Brown took comfort in their son’s cat, Chummy. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Cara Moser and Julie Foster look at photos and talk about their daughters after a meeting of Harm Reduction Works in July at the Northampton Recovery Center. Both women lost their daughters to opioid overdoses and now are working to promote harm-reduction practices. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dan Harper is working on creating an app for a phone to summon help in the event of overdose. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dan Harper talks about losing his daughter Eliza Harper to an opioid overdose last November. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Henry Brown and Debra McNeice returned to their hobby of dancing many months after their son, Patrick, died of an opioid overdose in 2016. “Dancing helped when Pat was having a hard time,” said McNeice. “When you dance, you can’t think of anything else.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Miguel Rivera, who has lost friends and relatives to overdoses, volunteers at the Hampshire Interfaith Cot Shelter Resource Center in Northampton. He is now a recovery coach at the Northampton Recovery Center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jim, Chantel and Evelyn Ouimette at the memorial painted at the top of Mount Tom in Easthampton to honor Mitch Ouimette, who died in September of 2017. His family and friends made the hike a day before the two-year anniversary of his death. The painted memorial says, “Mitch #5,” which was his number for high school basketball and football. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS


For the Gazette​​
Published: 11/4/2019 12:12:31 PM

On a balmy Wednesday evening in late July, 11 people circled up on comfy couches and chairs at the Northampton Recovery Center for the weekly gathering of Harm Reduction Works, a meeting billed as an alternative to abstinence-only opioid recovery groups.

“I’m here because I feel compelled to be here,” said Cara Moser in a round of introductions. “My daughter died eight months ago, and I feel like it’s important to learn as much as we can about keeping people alive.”

Moser, whose daughter Eliza died after an opioid overdose on her 26th birthday last November, spoke through raw grief and tears.

The next person to introduce herself was Julie Foster, another mother who also spoke haltingly, through tears: “I’m here because my daughter died 87 days ago.”

Harm Reduction Works is not a support group for parents who have lost children to opioid overdose, but Moser and Foster, two grieving parents, find solace there.

They say its action-oriented approach to the opioid epidemic is a balm for their immense grief.

“I couldn’t help my daughter. I can’t stop anybody, but maybe I can help another mother to not lose their daughter the way I did,” said Foster. Her 34-year-old daughter, Ahmyee Lamoureux, died May 3 after a 10-year opioid addiction that Foster said was sparked by back surgery.

“Clearly, what we’re doing isn’t working,” she said.

Moser and Foster think harm-reduction strategies might be more effective in saving lives. Harm reduction is an approach to a public health threat that assumes people will engage in risky behavior and adopts practices aimed at reducing risk in order to save lives. For example, syringe exchange programs — in which people who use IV drugs obtain clean needles and receive care for illnesses associated with IV drug use — are a harm-reduction practice.

Then there are the more controversial safe-injection facilities — sometimes referred to as overdose prevention sites — where people can use IV drugs in a supervised setting with medical professionals nearby. There are legal battles underway to bring such facilities, which are used in other countries, to the United States.

“At this point in time, I don’t see how we cannot be implementing harm-reduction measures,” Moser said in an interview the day after the Harm Reduction Works meeting. “I think of harm reduction as good medicine, too.  We treat every other disease with whatever it’s going to take to keep people functioning, even if it’s not a cure.”

Foster said she sought out the group hoping to better understand the strategies that might have saved her own daughter. She believes discrimination against people like her daughter, who struggle with the disease of addiction, is among the factors that allowed the epidemic to fester. She wants to see safe-injection facilities join other harm-reduction measures such as the distribution of clean needles and the overdose-reversal drug naloxone.

“If there was a safe place that my daughter could have gone to and somebody was there for her, maybe it would have made a difference,” Foster said. “All people see is heroin, and they think of a junkie. It can be anybody — it doesn’t discriminate.”

“People think they’re immune to this,” said Henry Brown, whose son, Patrick Brown, died in 2016 when he was 28. “Their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are at risk. They don’t get it.”

‘A piece of your heart dies’

Moser, Foster and Brown are among five local families who spoke about their experiences with opioid overdose deaths for this four-day series. Over a four-year span from February of 2016 to May of this year, these families lost children ranging in age from 19 to 34.

While advocacy and activism help some families find meaning in their loss, the aftermath of an overdose death is a long and harrowing path of shock, anguish, anger, guilt and regret.

“My grief feels like this big glass of really bad medicine that you know at some point you’re going to have to finish, but you can only take a little bit at a time,” said Dan Harper, who lost his daughter Eliza last November.

“It’s changed us in every possible way,” said Kate Harper, Eliza’s younger sister. “We’ve all been removed from the path we were on before her death, and we’re on a completely different path.”

For Brown and his wife, Debra McNeice, the loss of Patrick has at times kept them home from activities they once loved and forced them to cut social events short. McNeice said she can’t imagine how she would have coped had it not been for Patrick’s cat, Chummy, who was often near.

“He saved us,” she said. “He would curl up with me when I was sad and crying.”

Jim Ouimette recalls the months immediately after his son Mitch’s death as pure hell.

“A piece of your heart dies, and you don’t get that back,” he said. 

“You just miss him so much,” said Mitch’s mother, Evelyn Ouimette. “Your heart is just ripped.”

Within the intimacy of a family, there are reminders all around that a beloved child is gone.

 “Every time, you feel this ding in your heart,” said Jim Ouimette.

“There’s this void,” said Dan Harper, “this amazing, vibrant, clever, beautiful person that just isn’t there.”

Complicated grief

For many families who’ve lost someone to an opioid overdose, their grief is complicated by a host of emotions not typically associated with the death of a young person, including stigma, shame and guilt.

“As a parent, you feel like you failed at your most sacred thing — your reason for being,” said McNeice, Patrick’s mother.

Consultant Franklin Cook, a specialist in peer grief support who has worked with Tapestry’s harm-reduction services, said the impact of stigma and shame on grief is powerful and can hinder the healing process. 

“What happens around stigma in grief is that it isolates people and makes them less able to reach out,” Cook said. “It’s not just an individual judgment but a community judgment. Your person is being treated as less than, different, as a bad person, as someone to blame as opposed to someone who something happened to — as a person who deserved what they got.”

While medical professionals agree addiction is a chronic and life-threatening disease, families of people suffering from it rarely receive the type of support given to families whose loved ones face other types of chronic illness.

“For my patients with opiate use disorder, they could be dead any day, but the love and support in the community doesn’t happen,” said Dr. Ruth Potee, a former family practice physician who is now director of addiction services at Behavioral Health Network in Springfield.

Potee saw the impact of that guilt working as a primary care physician with ever-growing numbers of young people struggling with addiction.

“What is left behind when somebody dies is years and years of pain and wondering and guilt,” said Potee. “Parents feel so guilty, and they beat themselves up so much.” 

Dan Harper said when Eliza was in the throes of her illness, he did not talk about the family’s struggles in the way he knows he would have if she had been dealing with a different health crisis.

“I didn’t share with people at work because I was ashamed of it,” he said.

Now he talks openly about his daughter’s illness and the family’s attempts to help her as he works to make sense of it. He hopes that openness might help other people by destigmatizing the disease. 

“The thing I don’t think people understand about addiction is —  it’s calling the shots, you’re not,” Harper said. 

Potee says as she watches families struggling with a sorrow tangled up in guilt, she is reminded of when her brother died many years ago, a death not related to opioids.

“I didn’t feel guilty when my brother died — I had one emotion,” she said pointedly. “I just felt sad.”

Finding acceptance 

As time passes, Brown and McNeice have returned to activities that bring them joy, including dancing, taking long bike rides and traveling, though there are still times when their grief keeps them off the dance floor or prompts them to head home early.

McNeice has a friend who warns her when there’s an obituary in the newspaper of another young person who died an opioid-related death. She needs to be prepared.

The Ouimette family copes as best they can with the hole in their lives. Evelyn says there are days she reaches out to her daughter, Chantel, whom she knows is also suffering.

“I call her and say, ‘I want to see Mitch, let’s go see Mitch,’” she said. Together, they head to his grave in Southampton’s Center Cemetery.

To mark the second anniversary of his death on Sept. 22, the Ouimette family and some friends hiked up Mount Tom in Easthampton, one of Mitch’s favorite hikes. They stopped at a spot at the top of the mountain where his friends painted on a rock “Mitch #5,” his number for both basketball and football.

Remembering their son is a comfort, and yet, as time goes on, conversations about him are less frequent.

“What’s even harder is when people stop asking about him,” said Jim Ouimette. “You stop hearing any chatter about him, and I get it — people move on. But we never do.”

Henry Brown said he understands that people might feel afraid to say the wrong thing or add to his pain by mentioning Pat. He has a simple response to such concerns.

“The fact that they reached out is more important than if they might have said the wrong thing,” he said. “You can never offer condolences too often or too late.” 

The impact on siblings

Cara Moser and Dan Harper worry about the impact of Eliza’s death on her siblings, Isabelle, 29; Kate, 24; Ava, 18; and Jackson, now 15.

That Jackson discovered Eliza and administered CPR remains a source of great concern. Moser encourages Jackson to talk about it “without hovering too much,” she said. “I’m letting him lead the way as much as possible.” 

Jackson seems to almost downplay his experience.

“I always knew it was a good possibility I would be the one to find her,” he said. As traumatic as it was to try to revive his sister, Jackson said he’d rather have done that than learn she had died through a telephone call. This way, he said, he knows he did everything he possibly could do to save her life. 

Kate Harper, Eliza’s younger sister, said in the year before Eliza died, they strengthened a bond once frayed by the impact of addiction and found common ground on which to move forward.

“I feel a lot of guilt because I think I judged her for using,” Kate said. “I wish I could have supported her better.”

She also finds herself ruminating on what might have been.

“It feels so preventable,” she said. “If I had just stopped by the house on her birthday … If we had just done one thing differently.” 

Luis Diaz, 50, who lives in Florence, lost his older brother, Nelson Diaz, two years ago to an opioid overdose.

“We were more than brothers; we were really best friends. I think about him every day,” he said. “I really miss him.”

Diaz, who is in recovery himself and began using opioids at age 14, experiences survivor guilt.

“I do think about it — ‘Wow, he’s dead, and I’m alive.’ I got lucky,” said Diaz, who has lost a number of friends to opioid-related deaths.

“It’s attacking everybody. It doesn’t discriminate,” he said. “What is very sad is that it’s taking all these young people. That could have been me.”

Dismantling the stigma

Dan Harper, a computer programmer, has been working on a phone app to prompt an alert in case of overdose. He realizes the project is his way of trying to regain control. The app would connect a phone to a small monitor attached to an earlobe or finger to summon help automatically when someone’s breathing rate is life-threatening.

He believes such a device could have saved Eliza’s life.

“The scary thing is Ava was upstairs when she died,” Harper said. “I was at UMass, 10 minutes away. Jackson was at school. There was Narcan in the kitchen.” The phone app would be “just an extra thing to get help there faster.”

Fighting for new policies, improved services and stronger support for people struggling with opioid use disorder has become a rallying cry for many bereaved family members.

Cara Moser and daughter Isabelle have dedicated themselves to a community effort to open a safe injection facility in Philadelphia, where Isabelle lives. Moser believes the site would pave the way for other overdose prevention sites to open around the country, including, she hopes, in western Massachusetts.

This project is a way to honor Eliza.

“All that energy I was putting into helping her and keeping her alive, I guess it got redirected to help other people,” said Moser. “Sharing our story and trying to make a difference, that’s how I cope.”

Moser began sharing their story immediately after Eliza died. Moser and Harper asked Ruth Potee to speak about the epidemic at their daughter’s memorial service Dec. 9 at the Helen Hills Hills Chapel in Northampton. 

“I wanted people to understand that people struggling with addiction are our family members. They’re sick. They’ve become sick with addiction,” said Moser. “One thing that always bothered me was the stigma.”

Potee was not Eliza’s doctor, nor did she even know the family. She said it was the first time she was asked to speak at a memorial service, and, initially, she hesitated. In the end, she agreed out of a desire to offer comfort to a grieving family, but also to educate the community about addiction.

She, too, is angry about the stigma.

After Potee spoke, the crowd in the chapel gave her a standing ovation.

Henry Brown and Deb McNeice, a retired special education teacher and a retired speech pathologist, respectively, are also working to dismantle the stigma around addiction.

In their son’s obituary, they wrote, “Patrick Henry McNeice Brown, 28, passed away Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, after a courageous battle with life.”

To honor his life, they dedicated a bench in Look Park to his memory.

They also volunteer their time on Hampshire HOPE projects as well as through activities at the Northampton Recovery Center, such as an art class McNeice recently helped run.

Brown believes that prevention efforts and support options that weren’t around for his son, like the center and recovery coaches, are now saving lives.

“I think I see emerging best practices. My metric is, ‘Would it have helped Pat?’” he said. “I want to do something about opioids once a month for the rest of my life.”

Fueled by a potent mix of love, grief, rage and more love, he’s in it for the long haul. And he hopes other families join him in bringing attention to the crisis, he said. “I just feel like there should be 100,000 parents marching with pictures of their kids, saying, ‘What’s going on here?’”  

Laurie Loisel, a former reporter and editor for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, is director of outreach and education for the office of Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan. Loisel wrote these stories for the Gazette in her capacity as an employee of the district attorney’s office.


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