GriefSpeak – “Before and After a Loss to Opioid Overdose”

By Mari Dias

Amidst the fear of the coronavirus and the media coverage of the Democratic primaries, we often forget the ongoing issues, particularly the opioid crisis. People are still overdosing. People are still dying. Please take a moment to hear a mother’s plea. One mother who echoes the pain of thousands after losing a child to an unintended overdose. Ironically, this mom, Deborah Manzo McDonald is also the Director of Teen Challenge Rhode Island, a long-term inpatient recovery facility for women of all ages.

“Have you ever missed someone so much that you can’t breathe? Have you ever missed someone so much that when your feet hit the floor in the morning, the crushing thought of another day brings you to your knees as they buckle under the weight of the unhealed scars on your broken heart? Have you then realized that tomorrow is today, and the rawness of the loss hasn’t healed? It doesn’t get easier; in fact, as time continues to pass, it assures you that your loved one is really gone. Forever.

I sometimes force myself to echo and repeat, JoJo (my son) is not here anymore and he is never coming back. JoJo is not here anymore, and he is never coming back.’ As I say this it still doesn’t sound real. Or right. How did this happen? Have you ever asked yourself, ‘Why me? Why my child? When there are thousands in successful recovery?’ I have. As have many others who have lost a child to an accidental drug overdose.

Do you remember your “before”? How does it compare to your “after”? My before included being a mom to 3 boys and dedicated to my work at Teen Challenge Rhode Island. I thought I had worked tirelessly to help these girls overcome their addictions. I thought I had given my all. Until my “after’. My after began on September 14, 2016, the day my oldest son, JoJo, died of an accidental overdose. I immediately began to hold onto the loss. I felt like a victim- how could this happen to me? It’s not fair. I spent endless evenings pouring over photograph albums, crying (oftentimes hysterical). I couldn’t even walk through the doors of Teen Challenge. How can I work tirelessly to save addicts when my own son is dead? From the same disease! It seemed impossible. Insurmountable. At our first annual fundraiser, held shortly after JoJo’s death, I sat in the car. In the parking lot. I watched people of all ages and ethnicities, happy to celebrate their daughter’s path to recovery. I struggled to open the car door. I closed it. I couldn’t move. Grief paralyzed me. Eventually I opened the car door and got out. The walk from the car to the venue was exhausting. “How am I going to do this?” I thought. “How can I walk into this venue in front of hundreds of people celebrating the recovery journey of their loved ones? Why isn’t JoJo by my side? He loved the girls at Teen Challenge.”

I cried the entire banquet. I returned home to my photo albums, my dog, and my bed. My after will be spent this way for the rest of my life. Then God spoke to me. “You are not a victim. You will not hold onto loss. You are a survivor and will hold onto love. It was then that I took a shower, dressed and walked back through the doors of Teen Challenge to continue where I left off. How could I ever disregard Paula, who in her early 20’s with 2 children has been prostituted, beaten, raped and is now thriving at TCRI. And what about Barbara? Trafficked, abused, shot up with heroin at age 5 by her own father, who stays at TCRI, feeling safe and secure? How can I turn my back on all these girls? As a victim who holds onto loss? No. As a survivor who holds onto love! It was with love that I returned with a vengeance. My ‘after” is solely dedicated to the lives of these girls and to the legacy of my son. The two have merged: The JoJo McDonald 5k brings the girls, JoJo, and the community together as one.

I know there are a great deal of you out there who may be stuck and mired in the victimhood of loss. I implore you to join us. My “after” will always be an “us”, never an “I”. We cannot give up on these girls. I’ve seen so much success and believe that as my passion and efforts increase, so will the success of recovering addicts. Many of you, like me, have a “before” and ‘after’. Hopefully many of you have just a ‘before”, but live in fear of the potential of an “after.”

We are an organization that exists only through donations. Our newest effort is the Women and Children’s Home, so that we can take the children of our girls out of DCYF custody, out of institutions, out of foster homes, and begin to heal and mend a relationship damaged and broken because of opioids. But we need you. Yes, YOU! Please help us continue my “after” – through participation and/or donations. Join the 5k and celebrate your survival; your love.

It seems like a moment ago it was the birth of the 1st Annual Joseph P. McDonald, Esq. 5K but here we are preparing for the 3rd EPIC (it’s EPIC to anyone who knew JoJo or who has come alongside the McDonald family & friends) 5K event.

As I reflect on the 1st year – it was mostly about JoJo – preserving his memory – the hurt too deep for hearts to open to anything else. As I began to walk this new life without JoJo, I became aware of so many hurting people like myself. God stepped up my ministry. I now felt compelled to reach out to the ones who also experienced a loss – a son, daughter, husband, wife, sister, brother, mother, father, other family member, friend, acquaintance. People all ravaged by the opioid drug epidemic.

In our 2nd year, the 5K borders expanded and with that, the question to the hurting became, “Would you like to put a sign with a picture in honor of your loved one along the 5K route this year?” On the day of the 5K there they were all along the race route. Signs were also created of the TCRI women. “Before and After”, except the “After” were these precious ladies routing the participants on.

Just writing this even after 3 years still brings so much emotion to me. Healing to the brokenhearted. A wave of love extended. Families creating teams – they make t-shirts with pictures of their loved one, they name it after that person. From what I have witnessed this event has become a major support system for them.

And so, I ask if you would be so kind to start a team, join a team, just run/walk, donate to this worthy cause, and pray.

All proceeds from this race will go to fund the construction of our Women’s and Children’s home, a much-needed place, where the TCRI women can recover with their children being by their side in recovery as well. Out of foster care and the DCYF system and with their moms.

This 5K is not just a fundraiser- it’s an homage to my son. It helps me move forward as I acknowledge his life, our lives together, with an empty chair at the table. I invite, encourage, and welcome all of you to join me both in my pain and my healing. Come and celebrate the loss of your loved one, and let’s heal together.

As a survivor, I dedicate my life to God, my family, and Teen Challenge daily in the fight to end addiction. It is a war to be committed to in memory of our loved ones. Help carry the torch of Teen Challenge Rhode Island as we fight this epidemic every day and promote hope and healing through the unconditional love of God. We can channel our grief by fighting with determination, not just at the 5K, but every day. Let’s allow this passion and commonality to bind us together. There is soo much strength in numbers.

Praise God, it is no longer impossible to breathe, but possible to shout out our pain in courage and recognize that all our tomorrows will become todays. Together, with the help of God through Teen Challenge Rhode Island, let’s make today count for loved ones who are struggling before it’s too late.”

Together we can LOVE them back to life.

Dr. Mari Dias is a nationally board-certified counselor, holds a Fellow in Thanatology and is certified in both grief counseling and complicated grief.

She is Professor of Clinical Mental Health, Master of Science program, Johnson & Wales University. Dias is the director of GracePointe Grief Center, in North Kingstown, RI.  For more information, go to:

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