By JORDYN GRZELEWSKI
“You must be so relieved.”
What in Carolyn Mauro’s life elicited that reaction?
The death of her son, Joshua Moser.
Had he died of cancer or in a car accident or of an aneurysm, she almost surely wouldn’t have gotten that response.
But her 30-year-old son died of a heroin overdose.
Mauro knew the comment wasn’t meant to be hurtful, but it stung nonetheless.
“There’s no relief,” she said. “There’s a relief knowing my child’s not suffering anymore, but my pain is forever.”
Jean Bussard, too, has felt the awkward pang of a conversation cut short after the other party learns that her son, Shane, died of an overdose.
“As soon as someone asks how you lost your child, and you say heroin overdose, the conversation ends,” she said.
Maryl Faunda, whose sister, Sallie Ann Bair, died in 2012 at age 42, recalled instances when people remarked to her that her sister was — in polite terms — a “mess-up” who had wasted her life and left her family worse off.
“It only adds to the pain,” Faunda said.
These experiences are common threads that have united these women in their grief, a grief they believe is unique in its shame, guilt and stigma.
The particular nature of grief is what prompted Anna Howells and Barbara Schindler Moczan to start a local chapter of GRASP – “Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing.”
Howells and Moczan understand that grief and its associated stigma as well as anyone: Howells’ son, Dennis, died of an overdose in 2013 at 30, and Moczan’s son, Daniel Niehorster, died in 2014 at 26.
GRASP meets at a Boardman office building every Tuesday in eight-week stints. The group is open to anyone – mother, father, sister, brother, friend, spouse – who has lost someone to addiction. The current session ends the first week in November; the next begins in January.
To register, call Howells at 330-720-0878 or Moczan at 330-509-1061.
The group was founded on the idea that grieving an addiction-related death is complicated by feelings of shame, guilt, anger, relief, anticipatory grief, and regret, among others.
At a recent meeting, group members expressed gratitude that they now have a place to connect with others who understand this complicated mix of emotions.
“This is like a safe space, because we all lost a child the same way,” said Bussard.
“One of the things that resonated with me is ... all of our stories are so similar,” said Sandi Malice, whose son, Justin Malice, died in February at 30. “All of their paths were the same.”
‘A slow suicide’
A few years ago, Joy Brozman was standing in her kitchen while her son, John David, made himself something to eat.
A thought popped into her head as she gazed at her son: “Who is this?”
John David, 31, had turned to drugs to alleviate decades-old pain due to spinal problems. Until his overdose death on Sept. 14, 2015, Joy had a front-row seat to her son’s gradual demise.
As he battled drug addiction, John David lived at home with his parents in their comfortable Greenford home. As soon as Joy learned that he was using drugs, she enrolled him in a rehab program, and was there for him on the numerous occasions he came to her to admit a relapse.
John David remained loving, sweet and was always remorseful about his drug use, she said. But some of his essential qualities seemed to slip away before her eyes.
“They become strangers. It just seems like, your kid’s not there anymore,” she said. “It’s like they’re an empty shell that the drug has taken over.”
It was out of nowhere that the realization hit her that day in the kitchen.
“It just seemed like he was fading away, and I didn’t know who he was,” she said.
Still, it was a complete shock to Joy and her husband when they found John David in his bed on a Monday morning last year, dead of an overdose.
For Carolyn Mauro, her son’s battle was more prolonged. She was by his side for the 13 years that he struggled with drug addiction.
The two shared a close relationship, and he told her everything.
“I will never forget,” she said, recalling a day many years ago. “He came home and said, ‘Mom I have to tell you something. I tried heroin.’”
Mauro fell to her knees and started crying. Right then and there, she predicted how his story would end.
She told him, “Josh, your life is over. You’re done.”
For the next 13 years, though, she never gave up on her son.
She recalls countless middle-of-the-night phone calls, some to ask for her help — which she always gave — and others in which he simply cried.
One of their conversations stands out in particular.
“I asked him a few months before he passed – ‘Do you think it’s harder for me, or for you?’”
Her son’s heart-wrenching reply: “Hands down, it’s harder for you, because you love me so much.”
“He would often tell me, ‘I wish you didn’t love me so much,’” Mauro said.
Now, almost a year since Joshua’s Nov. 16, 2015, death, there is a measure of comfort knowing that the agony is over.
“It’s like a slow suicide,” Mauro said of addiction deaths. “I’d much rather be the one suffering, than have my child suffering.”
‘THEY HATE THEMSELVES’
For Jean Bussard, too, there is some relief – another one of the unusual emotions that often accompany addiction deaths.
For the first year after her son, Shane, 36, died Feb. 14, 2014, she buried her feelings deep down, allowing herself only numbness.
Then, with no amount of time able to guard her from its excruciating impact, the pain hit.
Now, she’s reached a point where she can celebrate her son. She plans, for example, to have cake for his birthday this month.
“You can find a place where you say, ‘I’m glad your suffering is gone,’” she said.
One feeling that might never be erased, however, is guilt – a feeling that everyone in the group seems to have experienced. Most are mothers who can’t help but feel they took the wrong approach, missed an opportunity or should have done something differently.
For Bussard, her ‘tough love’ approach to her son’s addiction haunts her.
“My son died alone, in a hotel room,” she said.
They reflect, too, on the tormenting guilt they know their loved ones felt.
“They hate themselves,” said Rachel Mauro, Carolyn’s oldest daughter, about her older brother’s addiction.
She harbors no resentment for the person she calls her “first best friend” and is stung by society’s attitude toward addiction.
‘this can happen to anybody’
Joy Brozman feels no shame for her son, and openly tells customers at her business – where he used to work – what happened to him.
Often, she gets a response like this one: “Well, that’s why I keep my kids busy.”
Her son was busy, too, and had, by her telling, a model upbringing.
“People don’t understand that this can happen to anybody,” she said.
Asked how they wish people would respond to hearing about their loved ones’ overdoses deaths, the group offered these suggestions:
“I would like them to say: ‘I’m so sorry. What was your son like?’” said Moczan.
“I’m so tired of hearing, ‘It’s their choice,’” said Carolyn Mauro.
“The same way they would if they died from a disease like cancer,” said Faunda, whose sister died of an overdose. “Not just silently treat you like it’s not a big deal.”
The conversation about death is perhaps most unsettling to her, because she is now dealing with a second addiction in her family.
Observing the grief of the others, mostly mothers who have lost sons, terrifies her.
They are quick to offer words of encouragement, though.
“The only thing we can say is, we remember those fears,” offered Bussard.
“But there is hope,” said Brozman.
And to others who might be scared, Howells says this: “Just come to one meeting.
“We understand. We understand more than anyone else.”