A heartbreaking side effect of the opioid crisis is young kids growing up without their parents – either because they died of an overdose, or their dependency makes them no longer fit for child-rearing. When this happens, the child’s grandparents are often called upon to fill the void, even though it brings hardship – emotionally and financially.
Ten years ago, Eddie and Kathy O’Brien of Whitman made the difficult decision to obtain legal guardianship of their 3-year-old granddaughter. It was an agonizing decision that, originally, strained their relationship with their daughter, Sarah.
"We didn’t have a choice," said Kathy O’Brien, a fourth-grade teacher who retired early to stay at home and raise a toddler. "We had to protect our granddaughter. We had to take our granddaughter away."
At the time, Sarah O’Brien thought her first child would help her finally kick her addiction. However, the love of her daughter could not overcome an oxycontin and alcohol dependence, which started in her late teens.
Get Boston local news, weather forecasts, lifestyle and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Boston’s newsletters.
"I hoped that she would be the thing that saved me from my addiction and my alcoholism," said Sarah, now 36. "And I loved her more than anything. And unfortunately, my life continued to spiral out of control."
Across Massachusetts about 30,000 grandparents have stepped up to raise grandkids instead of easing into retirement. The leading driver of this trend is opioid abuse, according to the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
In-depth news coverage of the Greater Boston Area.
Bobbie London, director of family support at South Shore Stars in Weymouth, runs a support group especially for grandparents raising grandkids as a result of the opioid crisis. Similar support groups are popping up around the state to give comfort to emotionally overburdened grandparents who are choosing between their children or their children’s children, while at the same time almost drowning in shame.
"One of the first grandparents I ever worked with, she said her daughter was in jail and she said I was only the second person she ever told besides her priest," London explained.
Two grandmothers who attend the Weymouth support group initially agreed to be interviewed for this story, but later changed their minds. In anonymous notes to NBC10 Boston, they articulate the heavy weight on their shoulders. One grandmother said the public doesn’t "feel the stigma associated with addiction. It is not something someone who hasn’t experienced themselves should be able to judge."
See more anonymous testimony below.
Like South Shore Stars, The Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren believes in the power of support groups for grandparents taking on the difficulties of modern-day child-raising. On its website, the commission lists support groups across the state providing much-needed emotional assistance, as well as pathways to financial assistance.
Sarah O’Brien says her parents were her saving grace through her journey to recovery. She’s sober six years now, has two daughters who are doing well and works at Massachusetts-based Ark Behavioral Health where she helps others beat their addictions. And while the older O’Briens are enormously proud of their daughter’s recovery, they freely admit, she wasn’t the only one who needed support through it all.
“The groups are critical. That saved us,” said Grandfather Eddie O’Brien, a retired fire chief. “Talking to somebody that has experienced it. It's so much better. And it just made it a lot easier, more comfortable, easier to open up, easier to cry. And that really helped.”
With 2,000 opioid-related deaths over the past year and treatment centers stretched, the amount of grandparents in need of support may be at an all-time high. It’s a trend difficult to measure because the associated burden of shame forces silence – and when a community of people is silent, it’s tough to quantify its size.
Anonymous testimony from grandparents in the Stars support group
Please articulate why it's difficult to discuss your family dynamic with people who aren't living through the same experience?
Grandmother 1: The difficulty discussing family dynamics with people who haven’t experienced addiction within their own family is that they can’t grasp the fear of “The Phone Call." They don’t feel the stigma associated with addiction. It is not something someone who hasn’t experienced themselves should be able to judge. When my son died no one contacted me from the police, hospital or DCF. I found out through social media postings saying, "rest in peace." People also don’t understand how traumatic it is dealing with the family court system and DCF. It is life-altering.
How do you describe the benefits you received from participating in the support group at South Shore Stars?
Grandmother 1: The support group at stars is beneficial because it gives us the opportunity to talk to others who can understand what you have been through, the group also offers emotional support and resources, while not passing judgement on you or your loved ones.
Grandmother 2: Like anything only those who have walked in my shoes understand the challenges for the caregiver and the child. It is like talking a foreign language trying to explain to those who, as I say, have normal lives. The Support Group provides a comradery for you and the child. The child plays in the other room during the meeting so the kids can share stories like, ‘oh you live your aunt, or you live with a grandmother, me too!!’ The child meets others that live the same life, a common denominator so important for everyone.
What has been your grandchild's development journey -- academically, emotionally, socially -- through the process of being raised by his/her grandparents and how has the support group helped in that journey?
Grandmother 1: My grandson’s journey went well academically for a long time and for years he appeared emotionally well, until the pandemic went into the second school year and then he collapsed. I don’t think the public schools really understand the needs of these children. He is seeing a therapist for anxiety and depression and hopefully getting back on track for his education.
My granddaughter, with the help of the Stars community has adjusted really well. I have been raising her for the last four years. She just finished Stars Kindergarten program and is moving on to public school this year.
I will always be grateful to the entire Stars community for their never-ending support.
Grandmother 2: Stars will always be his [my grandson’s] safe place, where he felt accepted and loved!
Stars opened my eyes to his emotional needs. Stars taught me that emotional wellbeing was as important as physical wellbeing. Through Stars’ push for counseling, mentorship and changes that had to made in our lives, he is now a resilient young man, who is years ahead of his peers. School can be difficult at times as there are still trust issues, not the same support as (Stars) but he is working on it. He is an athlete who excels in almost every sport he plays, Baseball State Championship, Football MVP, and goalie for a club team this winter.