Salem support group buoys families of OD victims

Ken Washburn walks into a Salem Hospital auditorium at 7 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month, introduces himself to the people seated around him, and says, “I lost my son Casey three years ago to a drug overdose.”

Washburn belongs to GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing), the local chapter of what he described as a national organization formed to help the loved ones of overdose victims.

About 10 people typically attend the two hour-long meeting.

Some, like Washburn and fellow Swampscott resident Paula Stinson, are parents of overdose victims. Brothers, sisters, widows, and girlfriends and boyfriends of victims also attend.

Washburn said some people come to the meetings and talk about losing their loved one to drugs and living with an addict. Others just listen.

“GRASP is a place to come to cry, to laugh and to get angry,” he said.

Casey Washburn died at the age of 24, nine years after his father said high school drug use led his son to pain medication like Oxycontin and into active addiction. He dropped out of sports and lost interest in school.

“We didn't know until his senior year when we put him on the spot. We tried to get him help,” Washburn said.

A drug overdose also killed Stinson's son, John, three years ago.

Household thefts and check-writing patterns hinting at drug purchases initially caught Stinson and her husband's attention.

They tried to tell themselves that John's hospital visits were related to his diabetes and not drug use, until the first time he entered a drug rehabilitation facility.

“The first time he was brought to a detox, you think, 'That's it, we're golden,' but it's only the start,” Stinson said.

As their sons' addiction escalated, Washburn and Stinson said their lives became a succession of bailing the two men out of jail, paying delinquent parking tickets and dealing with other problems even as they provided for their other children and worked and paid bills.

Washburn said he began to understand that his son's addiction could be fatal.

“Once you have a child who is involved in this, you know it could happen any time,” he said.

When it did happen, Washburn took time off from his job with a college publishing firm to deal with the double grief of losing Casey and the death of his sister.

“It all seemed like a blur,” he recalled.

Stinson's son's death coincided with her losing her job and she hunted for a new one even as she mourned John's death. Washburn and Stinson said the deaths brought them closer to their spouses. They have both been married for more than 30 years.

Both parents joined grief support groups, but they also used their affiliation with Learning to Cope, a support organization for loved ones of addicts, to regain their lives. Washburn and Stinson met Mary Wheeler and Amy Monks — Northeast Behavioral Health workers who reach out to help addicts every day — in Learning to Cope and Wheeler talked to the parents about GRASP.

“Mary really saw the need to continue the support,” said Monks.

GRASP's brochure describes the organization's founding by a couple who lost their daughter to a heroin overdose and lists a California couple as a contact for the group.

Washburn and Stinson helped GRASP's North Shore chapter in January, 2010. The North Shore Medical Center family resource center provided space for the group to meet.

Stinson said she “is never going to be the same” in the wake of her son's death, but she said her GRASP involvement has given her perspective on his death.

“I feel he is in a better place and I am going to see him again,” she said.

Washburn and Stinson said GRASP gives them a chance to help others who are grieving a loved ones' death to drugs and, by doing so, help themselves.

“I don't know anyone who hasn't come and felt better. What they hear is that they are not alone in this,” Washburn said.

Death and dyingFeaturesHealthHealth & FitnessLifestyle

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at

Just Posted

Advocates with the San Francisco Public Bank Coalition hold a rally outside City Hall before the Board of Supervisors were to vote on a resolution supporting the creation of a public banking charter on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Should San Francisco run its own public bank? The debate returns

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, momentum was building for San Francisco to… Continue reading

Apprenticeship instructor Mike Miller, center, demonstrates how to set up a theodolite, a hyper-sensitive angle measuring device, for apprentices Daniel Rivas, left, Ivan Aguilar, right, and Quetzalcoatl Orta, far right, at the Ironworkers Local Union 377 training center in Benicia on June 10, 2021. (Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters)
California’s affordable housing crisis: Are labor union requirements in the way?

By Manuela Tobias CalMatters California lawmakers introduced several bills this year that… Continue reading

People fish at a dock at Islais Creek Park on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
What Islais Creek tells us about rising sea levels in San Francisco

Islais Creek is an unassuming waterway along San Francisco’s eastern industrial shoreline,… Continue reading

Organizer Jas Florentino, left, explains the figures which represent 350 kidnapped Africans first sold as slaves in the United States in 1619 in sculptor Dana King’s “Monumental Reckoning.” The installation is in the space of the former Francis Scott Key monument in Golden Gate Park. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
What a reparations program would look like in The City

‘If there’s any place we can do it, it’s San Francisco’

Officer Joel Babbs, pictured at a protest outside the Hall of Justice in 2017, is representing himself in an unusually public police misconduct matter. <ins>(Courtesy Bay City News)</ins>
The strange and troubling story of Joel Babbs: What it tells us about the SFPD

The bizarre and troubling career of a whistle-blowing San Francisco police officer… Continue reading

Most Read