Mother of overdose victim starts Indiana support group chapter
Drugs have become a high-profile problem in the area, and Indiana County officials have responded by holding a series of awareness meetings in several towns.
Susan Kelly of Indiana is only too aware of the toll associated with drug abuse. She lost her son, Daniel “Hat” Cernic, to a heroin overdose in 2005. He was 23 years old.
“They say the hardest thing anyone can ever endure is the loss of a child, and I believe that,” Kelly said. “We're not meant to bury our children.”
Kelly's response to her personal tragedy has been to reach out to others in her situation.
She recently helped start a local chapter of GRASP — Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing — with the intent of forming a circle of support for those dealing with the death of a loved one as a result of drugs or alcohol.
“I feel like I'm honoring my son, that he didn't die in vain,” Kelly said. “It's shown me how far I've come in dealing with the grief, when I see people whose loss is very recent.”
There are many GRASP groups nationwide, including five in Pennsylvania, though the Indiana group is the only one in Western Pennsylvania.
There is one prerequisite for attending a GRASP support meeting — one has to have lost someone to substance abuse. It doesn't matter how long it's been since the loss occurred, Kelly noted, “Because there's never closure.”
GRASP was founded by Pat and Russ Wittberger of San Diego, who lost their daughter, Jenny, to a drug overdose in 1994. Now based in Palm Desert, Calif., the national support group is a subsidiary of Broken No More, an organization that works toward more enlightened drug policies that may curb the slide into addiction and overdose.
GRASP came to Kelly's attention after a friend, who had also lost a child, recommended a book written by the Wittbergers. Last July, Kelly downloaded the couple's “When a Child Dies from Drugs” on her Kindle and, through the book, discovered GRASP.
Kelly is a mental health therapist and self-employed mental health consultant who has worked for 22 years at the Indiana Guidance Center. She has spoken with other parents who lost a child to drugs or alcohol and thought a support group focusing on that specific kind of loss would be well received.
“I definitely saw a need for this in the area,” Kelly said.
In talking with parents who lost a child to substance abuse, she found many of them weren't comfortable in general bereavement support group settings because of a perceived shame about their loved ones' deaths. Some never revealed how their loved one died.
“They just hold back,” Kelly said. “There's definitely a perceived stigma attached when a loved one dies of an overdose or substance abuse. You wouldn't think that there is, but there is.
But, among the members of GRASP, “Everyone is in the same boat,” she said.
Carrie Bence, deputy director of the Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug and Alcohol Commission and project director for the Drug-Free Communities Coalition, agrees that, “for a parent who has lost a child to substance abuse as opposed to cancer or terminal illness, the grieving is different. There's still that stigma with drugs and alcohol that we, as the commission and the coalition, are trying to overcome and get more education out into the community.”
The Drug-Free Communities Coalition is comprised of representatives from a three-county area who are addressing drug concerns on various fronts — including treatment, recovery, law enforcement, prevention and faith-based volunteer efforts.
Bence said the coalition offered its support to Kelly in getting the word out about GRASP, what the local chapter offers and how it relates to the coalition's mission of working with parents and the community to help keep kids drug-free.
Needing a place for the GRASP chapter to meet, Kelly was offered space at the Open Door counseling center by that agency's director, Vince Mercuri, who is also the coalition chair.
With that hurdle overcome, Kelly began sending out mailings to spread the word about the new support outlet, and people started contacting her. Her daughter, Autumn Cernic of Pittsburgh, also has helped in promoting the group.
Kelly's background in mental health is valuable at the meetings, but she usually lets the group lead the discussions, allowing members to discuss their personal struggles in a supportive atmosphere.
Kelly provides the group with materials to help them in their grief journey, including handouts and books they can read between meetings.
“Right now, a lot of the participants are talking about how they're getting through each day,” she said, noting that the losses of most of those currently attending the meetings have been very recent.
Discussion at the meetings also allows the survivors to talk about their loved one's addiction, something that may have taken up years of the person's life.
Group members are encouraged to bring photographs of their lost loved ones to share. “One of the things people lack is the ability to talk about their loved one, and they still want to talk about that person,” Kelly said.
Chapter sessions began with three or four people attending and that number has fluctuated in the five times the group has met so far.
No regular date has been established for the local GRASP meetings. Each subsequent session is scheduled to best meet the needs of those in attendance. So, Kelly asks those planning to attend a support meeting to pre-register.
Kelly's avid hope is that no one would have to face the death of a loved one through addiction to drugs or alcohol. But if the worst happens, she wants people to know that they have somewhere to turn and that they are not alone in their grief.
“I wish I would have had something like this when I lost my son, so I want to offer that to others,” Kelly said. “I can help others and we can all help ourselves.”
Gina DelFavero is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2915 or firstname.lastname@example.org.