By Ed Karvoski Jr., Contributing Writer
Marlborough – Families and supporters endured the evening’s humidity Aug. 28 while attending the fourth annual candlelight vigil outside the Walker Building to commemorate International Overdose Awareness Day (Aug. 31). Creating a visual impact, 1,909 purple flags were placed on the lawn to represent the confirmed number of overdose deaths statewide in 2017.
The local event has been coordinated since its inception by Kathy Leonard, whose son Jonathan Testa died of a heroin overdose at age 27 in 2014.
“The pain of that loss, even after three years and eight months, has not subsided,” she said to the nearly 200 people attending the Aug. 28 event. “Since we have been gathering for this vigil, we have lost 7,037 people to overdose deaths in Massachusetts. I am grateful that in 2017 we lost about 180 fewer people than in 2016. Any progress is a step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go.”
Speaking from firsthand experience, Leonard encouraged families who have lost loved ones to an overdose death to acknowledge and embrace their grief. She further noted that grief becomes integrated into everyday lives.
“As long as we are all facing in the same direction, holding each other up and moving forward, there is hope,” she said. “We will get through our grief together. And we will fight to save more and more lives each year.”
Among several guest speakers was metal sculptor and activist Domenic Esposito of Westwood. He sculpted an approximately 10-foot, 180-pound heroin spoon as part of an exhibition titled “Opioid: Express Yourself” at the Fernando Luis Alvarez Gallery in Stamford, Conn. This summer, Esposito and Alvarez stationed the giant spoon as an art protest in front of Purdue Pharma, a manufacturer of opioids including OxyContin. Esposito said his inspiration to protest is the nearly one-year recovery from drug addiction of his brother Andy.
Making an unexpected appearance because of a change in schedule was Jim Wahlberg. He’s executive director of the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, and co-producer and co-writer of “If Only,” a short film about the dangers of prescription drug abuse. Walberg assured parents that their children are in heaven, and proud of them for raising awareness of substance use disorder (SUD) and overdose deaths.
The event concluded with a candlelight vigil led by Cheryl Juaire, whose son Corey Merrill died of a heroin overdose at age 23 in 2011. She’s the founder and president of Team Sharing, Inc., a national organization that supports families who have lost a child to SUD. For information, visit teamsharinginc.org.
Erin Holmes, whose son Matthew died at age 22 in 2016 after a long-term recovery from heroin addiction, facilitates Learn to Cope (learn2cope.org) meetings Mondays (except holidays) from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Hudson Senior Center. Kathy Leonard facilitates a Coping Today grief support group for families and friends dealing with the loss of a loved one to SUD on the first Thursday of each month from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the First Church in Marlborough.
After the vigil, Leonard expressed thanks for all who had participated, especially as the night was so hot and humid.
“Our evening went very well! We had some wonderful guest speakers, and a very beautiful tribute to the loved ones we lost with both the flag display and the memorial slideshow,” she said. “The feedback that I received was very positive. Many people look forward to this vigil each year as a way to remember those loved ones that we’ve lost to an overdose, and a safe place for all to gather without shame or stigma. And once again, there were lots of tears and hugs and an unspoken bond between all of those, including myself, that know the pain of this kind of loss.”