‘Where is the outrage?’
Mothers seek solace, intervention in quest to end drug overdose deaths
MARLBOROUGH, Mass. — The moms meet in a parking lot overlooking the little white funeral home and watch the 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, who must go through with the unnatural act of burying their children at a rate unprecedented in modern American history.
Cheryl, the leader of this unhappy welcoming committee, fishes a sympathy card out of her purse. She bought some in bulk not long ago and was stunned to find this was the last one left.
Each card equals another set of parents, their lives clawed apart by the opioid epidemic. Many are broke from paying for treatment or raising their grandchildren at retirement age. Some have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The chaos of addiction consumed their lives. Then the chaos ended with a funeral, and the quiet proved far worse.
Cheryl reads newspapers hunting for obituaries and searches social media for the newly bereaved, to invite them into the fold. You are not alone in guilt and grief and regret and rage, she wants them all to know. It has become her own kind of addiction, a habit to quiet the demons.
Her son, Corey Merrill, was 23 when he overdosed on heroin in 2011, just as the 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. She didn’t even know he needed saving.
Now this is her penance: wake after wake, mother after mother, trying to spare them the solitary torment that almost killed her.
Cheryl straightens the gold cross around her neck, smooths her hair and climbs out of the car.
“That mom gave birth to that child,” she 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.”
bereaved mothers who make up the board of Cheryl’s nonprofit met poolside at one of their homes on a suburban cul-de-sac. A white sign
Earlier in the week, four
was staked out front in the grass, with #2069 printed in black. That’s the number of people opioids killed in Massachusetts in just one year, one state’s slice of the more than 400,000 who have died in the U.S. since the epidemic began in 1999.
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 people a day on average.
“One analogy that can sometimes get people’s attention is that it’s like an airplane full of commuters crashing every single day,” one mother offered as the group struggled to somehow depict the magnitude of its mission.
And yet it feels to these mothers that the world is getting tired of hearing about all their dead kids.
They led a campaign of thousands across America to send President Donald Trump photos of their children, all mailed last Feb. 10 to reach him by Valentine’s Day. They expected the president to say, or tweet, that he heard them and would do something. They expected media coverage from coast to coast — that people would look into their children’s eyes and be so enraged they’d march in the streets.
But there were no marches for them.
That Valentine’s Day, 17 people were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, consuming political and public attention. Cheryl grieves for the parents who lost a child there. But she did the math, and that many people will die from drugs by the time this three-hour meeting ends.
“Where is the outrage for us?” she asks. “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.”
Her organization’s official name is “Team Sharing.” But she usually just says: “My Moms.”
When she started the group on Facebook three years ago there were only seven members, all mothers near her home in Marlborough. Then another parent joined and another, as overdoses became the leading cause of death for young Americans, dragging down the nation’s overall life expectancy three years in a row for the first time in a century.
Now Cheryl, 60, begins each day at dawn in her recliner, before her part-time job as a receptionist at a church, studying a 25-page document, single-spaced, that lists the hundreds of Team Sharing members and details about their children. Some on her list have lost two children to drugs. One lost three. One lost four.
On a recent Sunday, Cheryl got a call from a mother who had already buried one addicted son, and she was screaming, incomprehensible. Cheryl sped to her house to find that her second son had overdosed in a bedroom upstairs. The paramedics were still there, and Cheryl held this mother as his body was carried into the coroner’s truck.
to channel their grief into change. The nation knows how to fix this, they insist; all that’s missing is the will.
“Let the junkies die,” they’ve heard people say, even though the American Medical Association, the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the surgeon general all define addiction as a chronic brain disease that is, like some cancers and diabetes, fueled by a mix of genetics, behaviors and environment. The surgeon general notes that unlike those with cancer or diabetes, only about 10 percent of those with addiction get effective treatment.
This coalition of mothers believes the epidemic is unfolding much like AIDS did, with a society indifferent toward people believed 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 gyms 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?” she wonders.
Cheryl doesn’t like to talk about politics. Both Republicans and Democrats have failed to stop this, she says. She voted for Trump, who declared a public health emergency
Many parents of the dead try
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.”
It overwhelms Cheryl to think of all the things the nation needs to do to solve this, and so she tries to focus on what she knows.
She knows parents with no money left to bury their children; the ashes sit in cardboard boxes. So the first agenda item at her board meeting this week is to decide how much to donate for headstones and urns. Her board members grimace.
There’s Cindy Wyman, who used to knock on drug dealers’ doors carrying a photo of her daughter. And Lynn Wencus, whose son emptied her bank account and pawned her wedding ring and still she borrowed against her 401(k) to pay for treatment. She once drove him to buy heroin because he was desperate to get into a detox facility that would only take patients with drugs in their system. She sat next to him as he shot up, holding overdose reversal medication and weeping.
“That’s what we were willing to do to save our kids,” Lynn says. “And even at that, it wasn’t enough.”
They dreaded the phone call for years. For Cheryl, it came in the middle of the night, from her oldest son, Bobby, a police officer.
“Mom, Corey’s dead,” he said. Cheryl felt her knees buckle.
That call is her marker in time: There was her normal life before it and her life now, which includes an unwanted expertise in burying young Americans.
will forget their children or prefer to pretend they never existed, so Cheryl begins each morning acknowledging the parents whose kids were born that day, and the ones who died on it. She feels their rhythms: The first year is numbness, the second pure hell. She can tell which moms have been drinking, which have stopped leaving the house.
“She’s a hard one,” she’ll say, making a mental note to keep a close watch.
She does this from the moment she wakes up until she falls asleep, sometimes phone in hand. Staying busy with other mothers means she doesn’t have to think about what she didn’t do for her son.
All of that is what brought Cheryl to the little white funeral home in New Hampshire, a state with the nation’s fifth-highest rate of overdose deaths.
She had called in the troops: Cyndi Wood and Kay Scarpone, mothers of Marines who came home from the service changed men. All three women grew up in the same town, but they were never friends until heroin claimed their sons..
“All these beautiful lives,” says Cyndi, who decides she can’t bear another wake and retreats back to the car.
Cheryl draws close to Kay as they walk together into the chapel, and she drops the sympathy card in a basket. She avoids settling her eyes on the photos of the person this young man had been or the mourners shaking their heads because it didn’t have to end this way.
Inside the little chapel, she folds her arms around this grieving mother. There is an electricity between women who’ve lost their children that no one else can feel, Cheryl swears, like they can sense each other in crowds.
“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,” she says.
Many parents worry people
The American Medical Association, the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the surgeon general all define addiction as a chronic brain disease that is, like some cancers and diabetes, fueled by a mix of genetics, behaviors and environment.
Cheryl Juaire, at her son’s grave in Chelmsford, Mass., started a nonprofit for families who lost children to opioid overdoses. “You are not alone,” she told a mother.
Christine Gagnon — along with others who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses — holds a sign during a summer protest at the Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, Conn. Her son died in 2017.