When drugs take a child: new Greenpoint haven for hoping and coping

“We all have the same story. We lost these wonderful people to this horrible disease.”

February 11, 2020 Paul Frangipane
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On a recent evening in the basement of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Greenpoint, Sia Hanratty stood up and addressed a local precinct community council meeting. She would soon be holding grief recovery meetings in the same location, specifically for people mourning loved ones who died from substance use, she informed the room.

Hanratty paused for a moment when mentioning her 26-year-old son who overdosed on opioids almost 10 years ago, and the difficult grieving process that followed.

For years after her son’s death, the Greenpoint mother visited different support groups, but when time came for her to share her story, people in the room frequently seemed to judge her, sometimes asking why her son couldn’t just stop taking drugs. About nine years after his death, Hanratty found support through regular meetings in Midtown Manhattan from the national group Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing (GRASP), filled with people who bonded over losing someone from drug use.

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When Hanratty noticed people were traveling from outside Manhattan to attend the meetings, she decided to start a North Brooklyn chapter of GRASP to meet once a month at St. John’s. Support meetings for people affected by substance-related deaths are necessary, she said, as stigma around their loved ones’ deaths surrounds them.

“We all have the same story. We lost these wonderful people … to this horrible disease,” Hanratty said. “If you’re not involved in it, it’s very hard to relate to.

“I started feeling ashamed when people asked me how my son died,” she added.

St. John's Lutheran Church in Greenpoint. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle
St. John’s Lutheran Church in Greenpoint. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

The stigma surrounding drug-related deaths fuels isolation in mourning and pushes guilt on those who were close to the victims, according to Susan Zilberman, who helped found the New York City chapter of GRASP about a decade ago.

“A lot of people feel that they could have saved their loved one … and just in general I think there’s a sense of guilt when anybody dies that we could have saved them, but it’s more intense following a substance use passing,” Zilberman said.

A common misconception that addiction is not a disease helps to perpetuate the idea that people fighting it can easily stop using drugs, Zilberman added.

“No one ever says, ‘I can make someone not have cancer,’” said Zilberman.

Hanratty said she also faced that stain when trying to find a location for the North Brooklyn chapter, getting denied or ignored when reaching out for hosts before finding St. John’s, where meetings will be held the last Monday of every month.

“When someone dies from addiction in whatever form, it’s another loss … we should support in any way that we can,” said Pastor Katrina Foster of St. John’s when asked why she chose to open her church to the support group.

The first meeting in Brooklyn was on Jan. 27, and while no new participants came, Hanratty and her oldest son spoke about their grief together in the church basement.

“Although no one showed up at the first meeting, I felt good that I was there,” Hanratty said. “Since Tommy died, I have no purpose. You lose purpose, and this is my purpose. To help.”

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