Shunning the shame felt by families left behind in opioid crisis

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WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI)  As Jillian Coffey hangs pastel Easter eggs from the bare branches of a red maple tree, her mother Kristine digs into the soil below.

“Purple tulips,” Kristine said. “Jared’s favorite color was purple.”

It is still unreal for both that their spring-time sprucing is for the grave of Jared and Joe.

“I just want people to know just because you die from an overdose, you’re not a bad person,” Jillian, their little sister, said.

Jared Coffey was 24 years old and had just passed a drug test to become an E.M.T. when he experimented with what turned out to be heroin while celebrating a friend’s birthday in 2016.

The family was still numb from the 2013 heroin-related death of his older brother Joe, who had served in the Marines and left behind a daughter.

“I’m still mad at both of them. Joe will never get see his daughter grow up. He’s missing all of that,” Jillian said. “And Jared knew better. How could he do that after knowing what we went through after Joe?”

“But I still them with all my heart,” she added. “They’re not snorting that line thinking they’re going to die. They think they’re going to wake up the next day.”

The Coffey family learned quickly that losing a loved one to a drug-related death brought not only pain, but shame from judgmental outsiders.

“Once they hear overdose, heroin,” Jillian said. “[They think] bad person, a typical addict, shooting up in an alley-way.”

That is where Build the Banner of Love offered help to let them know they’re not alone.

Jillian and Kristine are now among the non-profit’s volunteers who provide support for families struggling with their emotions after they lose a loved one.

“Every wake I’ve gone to,” Jillian said. “These families are embarrassed because everyone looks down on them because of heroin.”

The non-profit was founded by Joy LaTorre, who saw what families deal with from the outside world.

Memories of a brief conversation with one mother brought LaTorre to tears.

“And she said, ‘I don’t have to be ashamed, do I?,'” LaTorre recalled. “And we said, ‘No you don’t.’ And she said, ‘It’s okay, right? I don’t have to lie.’ You don’t have to lie.”

Banner of Love provides a number of services for families, including “blankets of love” for caskets that LaTorre said help families know they are not being judged by everyone.

The Coffeys volunteer to arrange bouquets that are delivered to wakes and funerals with kindness and fellowship.

“It gives me a purpose and it makes me feel good knowing that I’m giving back to another family that lost a loved one the same way I did,” Jillian said.

Email Walt at wbuteau@wpri.com with your story ideas and follow us on Twitter: @StreetStories12 and @wbuteau.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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