MARLBOROUGH, Massachusetts — 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, tasked with the unnatural act of burying their children at a rate unprecedented in modern American history.
“I’m going to stay in the car,” one mother says. “I just can’t go in.”
“I get it,” Cheryl assures her.
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 needs them all to know. It has become her own kind of addiction, a habit to quiet the demons.
Her son, Corey Merrill, overdosed on heroin at 23 years old 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 bob, freshly dyed chestnut brown to hide hints of gray, 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.”
Earlier in the week, four bereaved mothers who make up the board of Cheryl’s nonprofit met poolside at one of their homes on a suburban cul-de-sac in Wrentham. A white sign 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, the equivalent of a 9/11 every few weeks. “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 their 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 board meeting concludes.
“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 this group on Facebook three years ago there were only seven members, all mothers near her home in Marlborough, Massachusetts. 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 afternoon, 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 they carried his body out into the coroner’s truck.
Many parents of the dead try 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 gymnasiums 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 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 picture 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.
Maybe, she suggests to the board, they should give parents $500 to help bury their first child and $1,000 for their second?
Lynn rubs her temples and groans. “Second child,” she repeats. “Oh God.”
“I know,” Cheryl says. And then, before she could stop it, her mind wandered down into the basement of a funeral home and she was shopping for caskets seven years ago. On that worst day of her life, her oldest son, the officer, collapsed weeping. Her middle son, Sean, was still addicted to the “happy pills” Corey had introduced him to. And Cheryl felt helpless to fix any of it.
She had stood at her son’s wake, shaking hands, smiling awkwardly – unaware that the fog would lift and the reality would crush her until she wished she would die, too.
When Corey was born, Cheryl had pulled his bassinet next to her bed and slept with her hand on his back, counting his heartbeats. She’d had her first two sons young, but Corey was planned. She always feared she would lose him.
“I just felt life was never going to be good for me,” she says. “And then something so good came along.”
Corey’s father left when the boy was 5, and for a few years it was just Cheryl and her sons. Corey slept in her bed every night. Four years later, she met Peter Juaire, a firefighter, and was smitten.
With a new husband there were new rules to follow; Corey was a jokester, always playing pranks, and didn’t like rules. He had been a Boy Scout and Little Leaguer, then he dropped out of high school and it all spiraled quickly. Cheryl saw him for the first time in shackles when he was arrested on a drug charge at 18. “That’s my baby,” she wailed, and the guards had to hold her up. Then he was in and out of detoxes and jails and called her sometimes to say he had nowhere to go.
Peter, a recovering alcoholic who got sober 31 years ago, thought Corey had to hit bottom, so Cheryl told Corey he couldn’t stay with them. Now when she envisions her son sometimes, he’s sleeping on a bench.
“Do you ever regret it?” she asked her husband once. No, he responded. Not that part. But he had made other mistakes long before, when Corey was young, and they didn’t get along.
Corey eventually went to rehab and moved into a sober living house, and Cheryl thought the nightmare was behind them – until the call came.
At first, she found herself going to the cemetery alone to lie down on his grave. She liked to imagine his bones and worried she was going insane.
She constructed a shrine by her front door, with piles of things she found and thought Corey had sent as signs: feathers, flowers, quarters.
She obsessed over whether he’d died believing he disappointed her and prayed he might come to her in a dream. He did once; she was washing dishes and turned from the sink and there he was, smiling, his baby daughter on his hip. Then “poof, he was gone,” and she feared that her sadness scared him away.
She wasn’t suicidal, exactly; she just didn’t want to live. She started drinking. She walked out onto the porch drunk one night and looked up at the stars and was overcome with guilt for seeing such beauty when her son would never see another sky. She collapsed to the ground and laid there begging God to kill her, until her husband came out, picked her up and put her in bed.
“I was watching her go away from me,” remembers Peter. “The road she was going on, I didn’t see us lasting.”
She heard from friends less and less until she stopped hearing from them at all. Years passed in isolation, until an invitation arrived to a dinner party with seven mothers whose children all died from overdoses. They sat talking for hours and confessed: They had felt compelled to sleep on their children’s graves, collected feathers they thought were sent from heaven, and begged God to kill them, too.
Cheryl went home that night and soon started her group.
“You’re not insane,” the moms tell each other.
Some tattoo their children’s ashes into their flesh. Some see mediums to try to connect with them. They share pictures of the sky and swear they see their children’s faces in the clouds.
Many worry people 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. Her husband tells her he’s worried it consumes her, but she shrugs and smiles at him.
Staying busy with other mothers means she doesn’t have to think about what she didn’t do for her own 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 and lashed them together.
“All these beautiful lives,” moans Cyndi, who decides she can’t bear another wake and retreats back to the car. She pulls out a picture of her 20-year-old son Brandon, his cheeks rosy and his shirt collared. She was at the cemetery placing flowers on his grave recently and met another mother, visiting her son who had died of cancer. The woman asked Cyndi how her son died, and before she thought about it she blurted out, “An accident.” The instinct surprised her, like she’d absorbed the world’s stigma that being the mother of a drug addict is better kept a shameful secret.
“You feel alone when you lose a child like this,” she says.
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 his wide-eyed child or the mourners shaking their heads because it didn’t have to end this way. The dam had broken at a recent funeral, and Cheryl had left the chapel sobbing.
“Break down later,” she tells herself, because she is supposed to be the strong one to show that life can exist after this.
Little is known about the long-term psychological implications for the hundreds of thousands of mothers and fathers who have buried their children since the opioid epidemic began. Grassroots organizations for these families are sporadic, funded mostly by bake sales and 5k races and spread out in pockets of the country at random, usually where someone like Cheryl lost a child and decided to start one.
The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids last year tried to drum up support on Capitol Hill for $10 million to establish a family support program so parents would not have to navigate the misery of addiction and death alone, says Marcia Lee Taylor, the organization’s chief policy officer. It got no traction.
“Who is saving us?” Cheryl wonders. “Nobody.”
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.
On the drive back home, Cheryl marvels at the sunny sky. Beautiful, she says. Maybe it’s a gift from Corey. Then she checks her phone and frowns. She was hoping for a message from another mother who recently lost her child. A mutual friend had asked Cheryl to call her, and she’s fretting now because she hasn’t heard back.
Two years ago, a member of her group told her about a mother who had just lost a son. Cheryl considered cold-calling her but didn’t want to intrude. The woman killed herself two days later, on her son’s birthday.
Regret tormented Cheryl – “What if I had called her first? Would that have made a difference?” – so she put the questions to her group on their Facebook page. They told her not to feel responsible; some told her she had saved their lives. “I know how this woman was feeling,” wrote one mother who had lost two children. “We don’t want to be on this journey.” A few months later, that mother killed herself, too.
These are the stakes for Cheryl, the keeper of so many parents’ grief. As she left the funeral home, dozens of them were starting to gather at a group member’s lake house for a potluck like any other, except the cars outside had bumper stickers or license plates commemorating lives cut short: “Jenn 29,” ”Joey 22.” And nametags read: “Debbie, Jay’s mom,” ”Lois, Robbie’s mom.”
Team Sharing’s annual party is one of Cheryl’s favorite days of the year. But to get there, she has to drive past the apartment building where her son died.
The first time she’d absentmindedly followed the GPS and suddenly there it was. “No, no, no, this can’t be happening,” she thought, and then: “Oh God, if only I’d understood. Why didn’t I spend more time with him? Ask him what was going on in his mind? Why? Why? Why?”
Now, as she passes the building again, she can’t resist the urge to pull into the parking lot. There’s the dumpster where Peter had hastily thrown the bedsheets before he let her go inside. A second-story window leads to the bedroom where Cheryl had curled on a bare mattress, imagining the imprint of Corey’s body. She remembers there were needles everywhere, even though she’d always thought he was scared of needles.
“When I’m sitting here and I’m all alone and I’m looking up at it, I don’t want to know, but I do want to know, but I don’t want to know what his last thoughts were. Was he in pain? Did he feel it? Did he know he was dying? Did he call my name?” she asks.
Most of the time, with the help of her moms, she manages not to think about it. And she has reasons to be hopeful.
Last May, personalized letters began arriving in her members’ mailboxes from the White House; they take that as a sign that the president was moved by all their Valentines. Her middle son, Sean, is in recovery and helps others struggling to get clean. Bobby, the officer, found a letter Corey had sent him and got his signature tattooed on his arm; the permanence helped him find peace.
Corey’s daughter, 4 months old when he died, is 8 and has her father’s green eyes. Cheryl takes her to the cemetery on his birthdays, sets up a little table, and they sing and eat cake. And her marriage survived. Peter accepts the shrine by the front door and her need to spend all day on the phone, talking to her moms.
She shakes her head to dislodge the tears. “OK,” she says. “I get to go to a party.”
In the SUV with a bumper sticker of her son’s name, Cheryl heads for the lake house. As she scribbles on her nametag, “Cheryl, Corey’s mom,” and stamps it to her heart, another mother steps out to take a phone call.
Three years ago, when a nurse at the hospital told this woman her son was dead from an overdose, she’d begged her to rip out her heart and give it to him. Now, her other son was on the phone, out of his mind. He just relapsed, he tells her, and he worries he won’t make it this time.
The mother tells a friend to thank Cheryl, and she quietly slips away.
Story: Claire Galofaro