By Alecea Rush
An old Korean proverb states that when a child dies you bury them in your heart. The concept of burying children and young adults is difficult to process, but for the family members of heroin addicts it is a reality that creeps closer with each overdose. This kind of loss is what experts call anticipatory. Families who have dealt with trips to the emergency room, detox centers and halfway houses, as well as failed attempts of sobriety have been preparing themselves mentally for the worst.
Carrie Medeiros lost her son Ryan Medeiros-Tavares after a seven-year battle with heroin.
On Sept. 9, 2013 Medeiros noticed she had several messages and missed calls. “It was my dad, he was crying and he said, ‘Carrie, you have to get home. Ryan is in the hospital and I think it’s really bad this time,’” said Medeiros. This was Ryan’s seventh time overdosing; little did they know it would be his last.
Driving to the hospital for Ryan had become a routine. “I would show up, he would get Narcanned and we would leave,” said Medeiros. In 2011 “first responders” in Taunton did not carry the heroin antidote Narcan and it was not yet available for families to have in their homes.
Ryan had to wait until he arrived at the hospital to receive the treatment and on that September day in 2013 the it was too late. When Medeiros arrived his brain had lost too much oxygen and the Narcan wasn’t working. He was kept on life support for three days and Medeiros was faced with the toughest decision on her life.
“They had the priest there to read him his last rites, then they asked me about donating his organs and I looked at my parents and we knew it was over. He went into surgery; they used three of his organs to save three people lives,” said Medeiros.
Medeiros began her fight with Ryan’s addiction when he was 17 years old. The key first step towards heroin was an addiction to prescription Percocet. “He was making routine trips to the dentist office to get the prescriptions filled. I guess the Percocet escalated to heroin,“ said Medeiros.
While she allowed Ryan to come home there were several rules in place. If Medeiros thought Ryan had been using he had to call detox centers and find a bed. “I told him I would sit with him all day long. If they told him to call in two hours, three hours, I would sit right with him and call,” said Medeiros. She also kept drug tests in her home and would test him if she felt like he had been using.
These attempts to get him sober did not work.
Deaths related to drugs or suicides are referred to by experts as disenfranchised losses. Julie Siri works for an organization called GRASP (Grief Recovery After Substance Abuse) that organizes some 80 support groups across the nation for families who have lost loved ones to addiction. “Disenfranchised grief refers to a death that is not socially accepted, acknowledged, or honored by society,” said Siri.
After a substance abuse loss GRASP believes families should seek out support. “The first and most important thing is finding a support system so your realize you’re not alone and that your reactions are normal and that the death mattered,” said Siri. Because heroin is so stigmatized this kind of support is hard to find in the general public.
GRASP also maintains that family members should try not to search for answers. “Family members are thinking, ‘they died so I must have done something wrong,’” Siri said. “They asked themselves what they could have done different. Truth is your family member died because he or she was addicted to heroin,” she said.
Siri also said people are dying in rehab, in their parents’ homes, in hospital beds and homeless shelters, so there is no answer.
For many people who who have worked through their grief the next natural step is advocacy. “Our group sessions are lead by family members who have experienced this particular type of loss,” Siri said. “Taking all of this grief and using it to create an organization, to put together a march or a walk, to raise funds for something, to have a balloon release to help other families it is another demonstration that the persons life mattered,” she said.
Medeiros took this step following Ryan’s death by dedicating her life to the fight against heroin addiction. Last year she founded Ryan’s Run 4 Recovery. “I just want him to be remembered. A lot of moms that I talk to that have lost their kids say the same thing, you just don’t want anybody to forget him,” she said.
The proceeds from Ryan’s Run 4 Recovery are donated to a New England-based organization called Learn 2 Cope. It supports family members of addicts and provides information and access to several state funded and independently run detox centers. The group also advocates against prescription opoid drugs.
Medeiros said she didn’t have parental support during the time she was dealing with Ryan’s addiction so she wants to help fund that for other people, so they don’t have to face the problem alone.
She did not know about Learn 2 Cope until after Ryan’s death but since then, it has become a huge support system for her and her family. Medeiros said she decided against donating to detox centers because she believes that system is broken. Ryan’s longest stay in a center was 13 days, which she felt was too short.
“When I mentioned it on Facebook that I wanted to do a race so many people came to me and said, we’ll do this or that. Olive Garden donated the food, I had a DJ donate the day. We raised $3,000 in the raffle tickets alone. Everything fell right into place,” said Medeiros.
Medeiros’ cousin Connie Lazaro is a big contributor to this year’s raffle by donating two pounds of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, two $25 Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards, a $60 gift certificate to a local tattoo parlor, a certificate for a full body airbrush tan at a local salon. “I also was able to talk TGIF’s to donating two gift baskets. I lost Ryan too, and I know if different than losing a son but I want to help keep his memory alive just like Carrie,” said Lazaro.
The money from last’s years walk helped send several families to the Fed Up Rally held at the D.C. National Mall. Because of her donation, Learn 2 Cope founder Joanne Peterson paid for Medeiros’ ticket to D.C. and stay for the rally. “It was emotional to see over 2,000 people mostly who have lost children in one county all travel to Washington to rally against big pharma.”
This year, the walk will be on May 16 in Raynham, Mass. Medeiros’ unemployment recently ran out so she is depending solely on the donations to fund the walk. A family friend recently reached out to cover the cost for the t-shirts everyone will be wearing. “I don’t know what drives me to do it, I just know I want to do it. Honestly, what I think drives me is Ryan.”