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.