By Denise Crosby Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Three Chicagoland mothers have formed a support group for those who have lost a loved one to addiction. The first "Gone Too Soon" meeting was held earlier this month.
FOX VALLEY, Ill.
It was not all that long ago Sandy Fink, Karen Gonzalez and Robin Dale were among the hundreds of other parents in the Fox Valley struggling to understand their children's opioid addictions.
Middle-class, loving and involved mothers, they met faithfully once a week in a well-attended support group in Naperville with dozens of others struggling to stay afloat in that same lifeboat: keeping their children alive while working to get themselves and the rest of their families as healthy as possible.
Then in 2017, one after the other, their sons overdosed and died.
Spencer Fink, who went to Neuqua Valley High School, was found dead in January in the bathroom of a halfway house in Florida, from an overdose of a heroin/fentanyl mix, his mother said. He was 26 and in his last year of law school.
Bryan Gonzalez, a 29-year-old Columbia College grad and well-established musician and sound engineer, was found dead in June, also from fentanyl and heroin, in an abandoned garage in Chicago, his mother said. It was his third and final relapse after almost a year of sobriety.
Matthew Dale, an Oswego High School grad who became a union pipefitter, lost his life at age 26 a couple weeks before Christmas inside a car in Arizona, where he'd started life anew after being clean for almost two and a half years. His mother only found out recently the official cause of death was an accidental overdose from heroin.
One by one, in six-month intervals, all three of their mothers became graduates of a support group that no longer seemed relevant. Just like that, all the issues that were so monumental to them and the other parents, worrying their kid may not come home at night, for example, seemed sadly inconsequential.
"I did not feel like I belonged anymore," said Fink, a stay-at-home mom who "tried to do everything by the book" when raising her family.
"In that group, the parents still have hope," she said. "For me, there is no more hope."
Those sentiments were echoed by Dale, who has been a longtime advocate of opioid prevention and education in Oswego and surrounding communities.
"Until you lose a child, there is no way to imagine what it is like," she said, adding that even other grief groups fell short because of the way the members' children died.
"A lot of people," said Dale, "can't share with others because of the stigma, because of the shame."
And so, Fink, Dale and Gonzalez formed what they say is the first support group in this area for those who have lost a loved one to addiction.
"When the need arose to start this group, I knew it was my calling," said Gonzalez, "I know my son would be so proud of me."
Recently, U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan met with DuPage County officials in Wheaton to discuss ways to fight this scourge that, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is claiming 175 lives a day.
"We are," said Fink, "killing off a generation of intelligent people who could have the answer to our problems."
All three young men, who came from loving intact and involved families, seem to have fit that description.
Gonzalez said her son Bryan was in gifted programs throughout his years in the Bolingbrook school system, made the dean's list at Columbia and was well-established and well-loved in the music industry, even while battling his addiction.
Fink said her son Spencer was so academically talented that when he graduated to harder drugs after starting with marijuana in eighth grade, "the school was not that concerned because his grades were not affected."
He was "good-looking, brilliant and could light up a room when he entered it," said Fink, who even went back to school to become a drug counselor to try and help him. But Spencer also was likely fighting mental illness, and chose to "use illegal drugs to medicate rather than legal drugs that could have helped him," she said.
Because there is no history of addictions or mental illness in her family, Gonzalez said she still struggles with why her son, after taking that first hit of heroin at age 19, became "so consumed by the evil" that, during three relapses, he "pawned all he owned" to feed his habit, including his beloved guitar.
Fink says her son was in his last year of law school when he started using again. Six months later, while he was in a halfway house with a Florida treatment center, two Naperville police officers knocked on her door, handed her and husband Russ a piece of paper that contained the name and phone number of a Florida detective, but offered no more information. Thinking their son had gotten in some kind of legal trouble, the couple called the number, only to be informed by the officer on the other end of the line that "we are investigating the death of Spencer Fink."
"It was like someone took a gun to our gut and shot us," she said.
Fourteen months later, Fink says she's strong enough now that she wants to work with police departments on better ways to inform families of fatal overdoses. And she and her co-founders, which include Terri Koller of Oswego, are open to other ideas on how this new group can not only be a support to others but be more effective in tackling issues so many grieving families face.
"Gone Too Soon" meets the first and third Thursday of every month at Wheatland Salem Church, in Naperville.
Advocacy, they insist, will be a major part of their focus. Last year, not long after her son's death, Fink was a presenter at Neuqua Valley's "The Elephant Project;" and oldest son Trevor, she said, is planning to join her this year for this program that confronts "the elephant in the room."
"Our friends say we were the perfect family. And Spencer had all the tools to do well in life, including those core values. But no one is immune to this," Fink said. "And love is not enough. Once you are addicted, it becomes your god."
Which is why, as much as these moms would not wish their personal nightmare on anyone else, they know only too well membership in this uniquely tragic club will continue to rise.
"The pain never goes away," said Koller, whose 22-year-old daughter Jenna died in March a decade ago, when overdoses did not make the paper and everyone stayed away from their house because they "didn't want to catch it."
It is, instead, a safe haven where those who are grieving can lean on each other to navigate what one mom described as "a vortex of chaos."
"My purpose before last Christmas was to save my son and help us get healthy," said Dale. "I now need to learn to grow without my son."
And in doing so, she added, "I can learn to give others hope again."