By Lori Berkey, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – Knowing firsthand the agony of losing her adult child to opioid addiction, Shrewsbury resident Aileen Lovejoy was moved by the raging epidemic to create a support group for others who have lost a loved one due to substance addiction. Last December, she and her co-facilitator, Deb Dowd-Foley, started a local chapter of the national organization, GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing), which meets monthly in Worcester.
In the aftermath of her son’s death, Lovejoy went to a bereavement counselor and also tried attending a Compassionate Friends meeting, a support group for parents whose child has died from any circumstance. Then she met Dowd-Foley, who told her about a GRASP group held in Marlborough that was more specific to helping those coping with a substance-related death. GRASP is a nonprofit organization with chapters across the United States as well as locations in Canada.
Lovejoy and Dowd-Foley remarked to each other that they wished there was a GRASP group more local to central Massachusetts. After a short pause, they decided to initiate a new chapter themselves. The two received start-up guidance and a facilitator’s handbook from a professional counselor who works for the GRASP organization.
Lovejoy explained that neither she nor Dowd-Foley are counselors, and that their role as facilitators is to offer free peer-to-peer support. Their aim is to provide a safe, confidential environment where people can share their stories in a nonjudgmental forum.
Attendees are given the opportunity to tell their story, but are free to abstain from sharing. Some members share helpful resources and websites. During seasonal events, such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Lovejoy passed out handouts with tips on coping with those holidays.
The first meeting in December had four members. It has since grown to about 10 weekly, including newcomers and regulars. Lovejoy has noticed a prevalence among what members have dealt with.
“People who have lost a loved one to any substance addiction – alcohol or another drug – are welcome to come, but many of the people who we’ve met while we’ve run this group for the last several months have lost their loved ones to this epidemic, and specifically heroin,” she said.
Upon deciding to start the group, Lovejoy said she thought it might be more taxing than comforting. She wondered the effect repeating her story month after month would have on her emotions. But what began as a sacrificial effort to help others, ended up benefitting her more than she imagined.
“So far every month, it’s been more comforting than taxing,” she said. “In my case, my son’s been gone three years, but there are people who come to these meetings whose child may have just been gone a month or two months – it’s very, very fresh. The outcome of it for both of us is it’s comforting to be able to share.”
Having a mix of people at meetings who are new to loss alongside experienced grievers creates an element to the group that Lovejoy find helpful. She has been able to identify with anger, with questions related to enabling, with losing an older child, and more. And through her very survival of it, she is able to reflect hope.
“When it comes my turn to talk, I can reassure them that it never goes way, but some of those feelings typical of bereavement will dissipate,” she said.
Lovejoy hopes that publicity about the group will help raise awareness of the opioid epidemic. She wants people to recognize that substance dependence can happen to any family. She wants to eliminate the painful stigma that often keeps people from getting help.
Lovejoy said she does not want people to be hushed about mentioning her late son’s name. She is proud of the kindhearted traits that Francis Baillargeon III shared with those who knew him, and feels blessed to have a close bond with his daughter who continues to be a daily joy in her life.
The Worcester GRASP Chapter support group meets the first Monday of every month from 7-8:30 p.m. at Our Lady of the Angels Church (The Parish Center) 1222 Main St., in Worcester. For more information about the group, call 508-755-5041 or 508-248-5622 or email [email protected]. For further details about GRASP, visit www.grasphelp.org.