In August 2013, Anne Roberts and Jim Cagey lost their son, Patrick Cagey, to a heroin overdose just before what would have been his 26th birthday.
Now, the couple is starting a Lexington chapter of GRASP, Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing, to help others who are grieving similar losses.
The support group, which has chapters throughout the country, is open to anyone who has a loved one who has died of an overdose. The first meeting is 7 to 9 p.m. June 15 at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.
“It’s really just a grief support,” Roberts said. “Because the grief is overpowering.”
Patrick was the couple’s only child.
“He was a wonderful child,” Roberts said, a conscientious young man who excelled at wrestling during his years at Lafayette High School.
He went on to graduate from the University of Kentucky and worked for a while as a personal trainer, then took a job helping people who had suffered traumatic brain injuries relearn life skills.
“He absolutely loved it,” Roberts said.
But about a year before he died, Patrick developed a knot on the side of his leg where he had had surgery for an injury as a teen.
He put off going to the doctor to have the knot addressed, “but he did go and get pain pills,” Roberts said.
The Percocet prescribed by a doctor, she said, is where his battle with addiction began.
When the prescriptions dried up, Roberts said, “Patrick started buying pain pills on the street.”
About that time, she said, the government “started cracking down on pills.”
“Pills got very expensive, and heroin was $7,” Roberts said Patrick later told her.
But when he first came to her and told her he needed help for addiction, Roberts said she never thought heroin might be involved.
Patrick spent 28 days at the Recovery Works treatment program in Georgetown, and on the day he came home, the family sat down to talk about a plan for the future.
“I don’t know what made me ask ... ‘Patrick, have you used heroin?’” Roberts recalled.
Roberts is a nurse practitioner who had spent nearly 30 years working with people suffering from addiction, but she said finding out her son had used heroin blindsided her.
“Patrick exercised every day. He was very goal oriented,” his mother said. “The last person that I would ever think would use a drug.”
Roberts said she and her husband immediately began trying to make arrangements for further treatment, but four days later Patrick went out to look for a job and never came back. He was found dead of a heroin overdose.
Patrick’s story was featured in “Dying to be Free,” a story by Jason Cherkis that appeared in The Huffington Post in January 2015. The story was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
Telling his story has been an important part of the grieving process for Roberts, who also writes about Patrick’s death on her Facebook page.
“At first, it was very difficult to post about Patrick’s death,” Roberts said. “But I kept at it. If anything, I wanted people to realize that someone from a regular, good two-parent family ... could die from this.”
She said there is a stigma to deaths as a result of overdoses that can make family members feel very much alone. For parents, she said, there are also feelings of guilt that aren’t associated with deaths from other illnesses.
Roberts found she needed to give up her work as a nurse practitioner dealing directly with people who have addictions because “I can’t get that distance from it.”
“I have good days, and I have really, really bad days,” she said.
But she still volunteers as a yoga teacher for local groups that serve women with addictions.
And Roberts said she has drawn comfort from GRASP’s online community.
“The group has helped me immensely,” she said. “There’s no feeling of stigma or that you have to hold back, because everybody has had that type of loss.”
Now, she and her husband want to share that support with others in this area. Roberts said GRASP does not do advocacy work. It’s simply a source of support.
“It’s basically a group that no one wants to belong to,” she said.
The Lexington GRASP group is one of two forming in Kentucky.
Mike Shimer, who lost a son to addiction in 2010, is working to start a chapter in Ashland.
“When he passed away, I realized there’s a healthy way to grieve, and a not-healthy way to grieve,” Shimer said.
He began attending a support group through Hospice, but he said he was the only person in the group who was grieving a family member as the result of an overdose.
He began attending a GRASP group in Huntington, W.Va., and he said he decided to start one in Ashland at the encouragement of his bereavement counselor.
Shimer said just one other person showed up to the first meeting Monday. He said he hopes with time more will come, because the opportunity to “walk this journey together” makes it easier.
“I don’t just do it for others,” he said. “I really do it for myself.”
Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing will meet from 7 to 9 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, 2025 Bellefonte Drive, Lexington.
The Ashland chapter will meet from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on the second Monday of each month. For more information about the Ashland group, contact Mike Shimer at 606-254-9162.