By Dakota Antelman, Contributing Writer
Marlborough – The third International Overdose Awareness Day Vigil at the Walker Building in Marlborough ended on Aug. 31 with hundreds of attendees raising memorial candles into the sky as the voice of Godsmack’s Sully Erna echoed down Main Street.
This year’s was the biggest event yet for organizer and advocate Kathy Leonard of Marlborough. Several hundred attendees came from across Central Massachusetts to hear more than an hour of speeches and a musical performance by Erna. Leonard organized the event to remember those lost to the opioid epidemic and destigmatize addiction.
“These events are organized that there should be no shame associated with the loss of a loved one from substance abuse disorder,” Leonard said during her speech. “The message is that the infinite value of each human being nullifies presumption, prejudice, and stigma towards people with substance abuse disorder.”
Leonard, who lost her son, Jonathan Testa, to an overdose in December of 2017, was one of several parents who spoke during the event. Cheryl Juaire, who also lost a child to an overdose, spoke about the grief associated with the overdose of a loved one. She and Leonard were also joined by Testa’s father Ed Testa and several other advocates and public officials involved in fighting the opioid epidemic.
“The pain of loss does not get any easier with the passage of time,” Leonard said. “So although in my mind, the words I speak seem somewhat inadequate, I will do my best to honor those who lost their struggle with this disease.”
Leonard and volunteers from across the region came to the Walker Building earlier last month to install 2,069 flags on the lawn. Each one memorialized one life lost to an overdose in Massachusetts in 2016.
The display, which stretched across much of the lawn and rose from street to the Walker Building’s front steps, attracted many to the vigil and astonished many of those who saw it.
“It’s stunning to see,” said Melanie Delarosa, who traveled from Milford to see the flags and attend the vigil. “One year, in Massachusetts, right there. These aren’t people who just had a near miss; they died. These families have so much feeling. I’m here to share in that.”
While people like Delarosa are attending the vigil and viewing its flags in larger numbers than in past years, Leonard has, similarly, had to plant more flags.
She planted 1,260 flags in 2015. A year later, she planted 1,531. This year, she laid more 2,000 flags for the first time, planting 2,069. Even that number, she added, was low. It has since been updated by the state.
“It breaks my heart that this year we had to put more flags out,” she said, later adding, “That’s 2,107 lives lost. But it’s also 2,107 families that will never, ever be the same. Every one of their lives was important. Every one of those is somebody’s child.”
Before Leonard led the vigil in a candle lighting, and before Erna sang his song about drug addiction “Different Kind of Tears,” Leonard made clear her thoughts on how to slow the rate of overdose deaths.
The vigil, she said in an interview before the event, would hopefully help accomplish that progress.
“Nobody decides that they want to be a drug addict when they grow up but yet it happens and we need to understand that substance abuse disorder is a disease,” she told the crowd at the vigil. “Medical science is clear on that. Now we need public perception to catch up with that science regarding this issue.”