ELYRIA — Greg McNeil carries custom-made poker chips with him wherever he goes.
When he meets a heroin addict or family member of an addict, he hands them one.
On one side of the chip is a simple drawing depicting several small characters scaling the side of a large mountain. The other side bears the name of McNeil’s nonprofit, Cover2 Resources, which aims to assist families who are dealing with loved ones addicted to heroin and opioids.
McNeil compares recovery from heroin addiction to climbing Mount Everest: Few people make it to the top, but those who do have the full support of a team as they climb. The chips are McNeil’s way of telling those he encounters that everyone is in the battle together, and they have his full support on their journey.
McNeil spoke Tuesday at a grief forum at Lorain County Community College hosted by The LCADA Way and the Hospice of the Western Reserve. The two organizations are collaborating and offering advice on dealing with emotions, managing grief and knowing where to turn for help for those grieving an overdose death.
About 75 people who have experienced the deaths of friends or family members attended, and heads nodded as various speakers talked about the grief that follows an overdose death.
The story of McNeil, of Hudson, mirrors the stories of hundreds of people in Lorain County. McNeil’s youngest son, Sam, overdosed and died in October 2015 at age 28.
McNeil said Sam first started using opioid pain medication in 2007 after he was severely beaten at a New Year’s Eve party.
McNeil said Sam hid his addiction well. No one knew he was buying prescription pain medication on the street after his doctor’s prescription ran out.
When street prices for pain pills were hitting $80 a pill, Sam did what many in his position do: He chose to buy heroin at $10 a bag instead to curb withdrawal.
All the while McNeil said he and his family had no idea Sam was addicted to heroin.
That realization occurred when Sam’s sister found him in the basement in 2010 passed out with a syringe nearby.
The family got Sam into treatment, and he did well, but in 2011 he relapsed twice. They then sent Sam to rehab in Florida, and by 2015 it seemed as if everything had come together and the family had weathered the storm.
“He had a great job and a girlfriend he was madly in love with,” McNeil said. “They were expecting their first child.”
But when Sam’s girlfriend left home for a church retreat, he called off work, contacted an old dealer he knew, used heroin laced with fentanyl and died.
“We as a family felt as though we climbed that mountain and everything was going to be good,” McNeil said. “Boy, the rug got pulled out from us, and we couldn’t have been more blindsided.”
McNeil said if he’s learned anything over the past 17 months it’s that those in recovery need as much support as they can get when they quit using.
That support needs to extend well into their recovery, he said.
“The fact of the matter is that they can’t do it themselves,” he said. “We can make a difference. We’ve been touched by this. We know it takes a team.”
A grieving county
As 2017 continues, an estimated four people a week are dying of drug overdoses in the county, an increase from 2016 when the number stood somewhere around two people a week.
Tom Stuber, The LCADA Way’s president, said the families he encounters all feel lost and confused when a loved one overdoses and dies.
Stuber said families who have a loved one battling addiction face their own hurdles.
“What you experience is no less of a trauma than living in a militarized zone,” Stuber said. “You’re perpetually on alert, and your mind races for answers. The emotional fatigue and fear you experience will at some point change you and how you deal with the world.”
Diane Snyder Cowan, director of The Bereavement Center of Hospice of the Western Reserve, said survivors of the dead will feel sadness, anger and guilt.
Cowan said such people should be compassionate with themselves because shame will make a person hesitant to share their grief, which will in turn lead to isolation.
Guilt is multifaceted, Cowan said, and sometimes people not only feel guilty because they couldn’t save their loved one from the addiction but also guilty when that person dies because they no longer have to live in fear day-to-day that their loved one is out and using.
Cowan said it helps when people accept the circumstances of an overdose death and it is important to find healthy ways, like art, music or writing, to acknowledge and express the feelings they experience.
It is important not to define the dead by their addiction, she said, and rather to find ways to honor their legacy preaddiction.
“Educate yourself about addiction, which will help put to rest those feelings of guilt and shame,” Cowan said.
But most importantly those left behind should seek a support system to tackle their grief and strategize on how to handle it.
“There are counselors and support groups,” she said. “You do not have to grieve alone.”