This piece was particularly meaningful to me. It was originally published in the May 2017 issue of Newslines.
Click here to download the original.
Grieving a Loss from Overdose
“Nobody ever thinks their child will be an addict,” said Sallie Kelton, a music minister at St. Pius Catholic Church. She affectionately describes her son Griffin Kelton as a “nut”—hilarious, a bit wild, but also extremely loving. He was passionate about lacrosse, devoted to his many friends, and smart, when he applied himself.
While “Griff” always put on a happy face in public, he was constantly trying to escape something. “Griffin was very loved,” Sallie said. “He just didn’t know it.”
From an early age, Griffin suffered from depression and struggled to find effective treatment. In high school, he started smoking marijuana and abusing prescription pills. In part, he was self-medicating.
Yet he hid his addiction well, especially from his parents, who tried their best to help him while raising two other sons. Things began to look up when Griffin graduated from Grimsely High School and enrolled at Queen’s University in Charlotte. Fittingly, he wanted to study the brain.
It was there Griffin was exposed to heroin. Sallie didn’t know her son had progressed to using heroin until May 20, 2015, the day Griffin was found by a roommate, alone in his dorm room, overdosed on the powerful opioid. Just 20 years old, Griffin never woke up.
“We had just shared a really nice Mother’s Day meal,” Sallie reflected.
Opioid abuse has become an epidemic, with a death toll rivaling that of the AIDS crisis of the 1990s. Greensboro has averaged 24 overdoses a month since August, according to the Greensboro Police Department – a 133 percent increase from just one year ago.
To help address this growing problem, counselors at Hospice and Palliative Care of Greensboro (HPCG) have stepped up to support loved ones reeling from an overdose death in their family. Thanks to generous community support, HPCG’s Counseling and Education Center offers free counseling to anyone who is grieving, no matter how their loved one died. And in November 2016 a support group was started for those who have lost loved ones to overdose.
“There are many unique challenges that come with this type of loss,” said Kimberly Grove, a bereavement counselor at HPCG. “This is a public health issue, and our role is to be a community resource for those affected.”
When Griffin died, Sallie was thrown head-first into grief. Her faith—always so important to her—was tested. She struggled with unanswered questions: How did it get to this point? Who knew about the heroin? Could it have been avoided? Fortunately a friend suggested she seek help at HPCG, where Grove became her counselor.
“Kimberly was a God-send,” Sallie said. “I don’t know how I would have done this without her.”
Sallie also participates in the monthly support group, where she shares her struggle with other parents who have lost children to heroin. Many are still trying to put their families back together after the wreckage of addiction.
The stigma surrounding addiction can be isolating. “Many in our group talk about feeling judged by others, feeling that others question how they could ‘let this happen’,” Grove said. “They need to be able to talk about their loss.”
Sallie has learned to channel her heartbreak into advocacy. With her husband, Kyle, she speaks about the dangers of drug abuse to local lacrosse teams, parent groups and legislators. Because of their advocacy, Queens University now has Narcan, an emergency treatment for people who have overdosed on opioids.
Once more, Sallie derives strength from her faith along with a wide support system. Still, she constantly searches for answers. When she wakes up, she thinks of Griffin, and when she goes to bed, her last thought is of Griffin.
“There’s no such thing as closure,” Sallie said.
Call 336.621.2500 to learn more about the overdose loss support group or HPCG’s other grief counseling services.