Moms of the dead from drugs: 'Where is the outrage for us?'

Christine Gagnon holds a sign during a protest.
Christine Gagnon, of Southington, Conn., holds a sign during a protest with others who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and Opioid overdoses at the Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, Conn., in August. Gagnon lost her son Michael 13 months earlier.
Jessica Hill | AP

The moms meet in a parking lot overlooking the little funeral home and watch mourners drifting toward the chapel doors — a familiar scene, beginning again.

Cheryl Juaire taps nervously on her steering wheel. "Are we ready?" she asks the two other mothers leaning into the window of her SUV.

The wake starting inside is for a stranger, another young man consumed by the great American plague. These women drove nearly two hours to shepherd his mother into their club, its thousands of members all bound by the same hell: They are parents of the dead from addiction, tasked with the unnatural act of burying their children at a rate unprecedented in modern American history.

"That mom gave birth to that child," Cheryl says. "When those doors close today, and they put her son in the ground, it's not the end for her. It's just the beginning."

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Cheryl's own son, Corey Merrill, overdosed on heroin at 23 years old in 2011, just as the opioid crisis was turning into catastrophe. She had thought using drugs was a failure of morality and gumption. Back then, much of America thought the same — that addiction was merely a bad choice.

So, no, she had told Corey, he couldn't stay with her because she hadn't raised him that way, and he'd slept instead on a park bench. Then he died alone, and she slowly arrived at the sickening realization that addiction is a disease she hadn't understood, and because she hadn't understood it, she couldn't save him.

Now this is her penance: She started an organization called Team Sharing , a collective of parents of the dead from addiction, and her list of members grows every day.

Cheryl searches social media for the newly bereaved to invite them into the fold. Many are broke from paying for treatment, from their own children stealing from them, from raising their grandchildren at retirement age. Some have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

You are not alone in regret and rage, she needs them all to know. This mission has become her own kind of addiction, a habit to quiet the demons.

Overdoses now kill more each year than guns or breast cancer or AIDS at its peak. They kill more than the entire Vietnam War. They kill nearly 200 a day on average, the equivalent of a 9/11 every few weeks. "One analogy that can sometimes get people's attention is that it's like an airplane full of commuters crashing every single day," one of Cheryl's moms offers, struggling to depict the magnitude of their mission.

And yet it feels to them that the world is getting tired of hearing about all their dead kids.

The group led a campaign of thousands across America to send President Trump photos of their children last Valentine's Day. They expected the president to tweet that he would do something. They expected media coverage from coast to coast, that people would be so enraged they'd march in the streets.

But there were no marches for them. Seventeen people were gunned down that day at a high school in Parkland, Fla., consuming attention. Cheryl grieves for the parents who lost a child there, but asks: "Where is the outrage for us? Our kids are still dying. And the only thing I can do is try to pick up the pieces for the moms once they do."

Judy Holden, Lin Kelleher, Lynn Wencus, Cheryl Juaire
Judy Holden, of Bradford, Mass., bottom left, speaks with Cheryl Juaire, of Marlborough, Mass., bottom right, during a gathering for parents who lost their children to opioid overdoses, in Arlington, Mass., in June. Lin Kelleher, of Arlington, Mass., top left, hugs Lynn Wencus, of Wrentham, Mass., top right.
Steven Senne | AP

Some in her group have lost two children to drugs. One lost three. One lost four. She knows two mothers who killed themselves after losing their kids.

Many parents try to channel their grief into change. The nation knows how to fix this, they say; all that's missing is the will. This coalition of mothers believes the addiction epidemic is unfolding much like AIDS did, with a society indifferent toward people thought to have brought their deaths upon themselves. That disease killed unabated by the thousands until masses started protesting.

So these parents testify before Congress, tell their stories in school gymnasiums and cry on local television news. They proselytize at rallies, warning that any family could be next, and see crowds filled with people who've already learned that the hard way. Cheryl led a picket outside Purdue Pharma, whose mass marketing of the powerful painkiller OxyContin helped unleash the crisis.

"What more do we have to do?" Cheryl wonders.

She voted for Trump, who declared a public health emergency in 2017, and remains hopeful that he'll keep his promise to end the scourge.

Last year, Congress passed a legislative package designed to combat the crisis and appropriated $8.5 billion, a figure experts say is a welcome step but far short of the sustained funding required to build the necessary treatment infrastructure. During the AIDS crisis, the federal government increased funding by tens of billions, says Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University professor and drug policy expert. "The opioid epidemic is as serious as that one and will require similar resources."

The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids last year tried to drum up support on Capitol Hill for $10 million to establish a family support program so parents would not have to navigate the misery of addiction and death alone, says Marcia Lee Taylor, the organization's chief policy officer. It got no traction.

"Who is saving us?" Cheryl wonders. "Nobody."

Inside the little chapel, she folds her arms around yet another grieving mother.

"I shouldn't be burying my son," the woman says.

"You are not alone. We lost our kids, too," Cheryl tells her, and the mother nods.

"We're not going to have anyone left."

Click here for more on Juaire's group, Team Sharing, and here for additional resources on addiction and recovery.