Peer Grief Helper Profile: Kathy Iellamo
By Kerry J. Bickford, VOICES Editor
Kathy Iellamo’s youngest son and self-proclaimed but fiercely independent “mama’s boy” Michael overdosed and died in March 2018 following a five-year battle of highs and lows. I couldn’t help thinking of a line from a poem (see below) that reads: ”if love could have saved him, he never would have died.” Although Kathy was there to support and love Michael throughout his journey, she couldn’t compete with his disease to keep him alive. None of us could save our loved ones. The hardest lesson of all is that while love is powerful, it does not hold a candle to the power of addiction.
When Michael first got into trouble with drugs and the law, he entered into detox and sober living with Kathy’s support and the teeth of court-ordered probation. She describes feeling extremely fortunate that she could access the very best programs for Michael through insurance, which is not possible for so many others. After completing detox, Michael left Massachusetts to enter a long-term program in Florida, where he did well. Unfortunately, he was on supervised probation and ordered to return to Massachusetts by the court. A disagreement between the probation officer and the judge resulted in Michael being released from probation, which would typically be a good thing. But in his case, it provided a crack for him to slip through, so he left the program in which he had been doing so well. Michael “bounced around” for a while until Kathy’s insurance, once again, got him into “another awesome program,” this time in California. Again, Michael settled down -- attending meetings and working the program, but he relapsed several times during his two years there and eventually returned home.
“When he came back from California, he decided to try the Suboxone program. He did well for a while. He had a job he loved in a nursing home. He seemed happy and was saving money, but by Christmas, I could tell that something was wrong,” said Kathy.
Indeed, something was. Michael had begun using Xanax, which changed his personality. He was “yelling, angry and disorganized,” which was so unlike him, she added. The clinic required Michael take a urine test, which he attempted to pass by using water. The whole situation escalated to another level, and the police were called to escort Michael to the hospital ER for an evaluation, but by the time Kathy arrived, Michael had discharged himself and jumped into a friend’s car. He seemed to know he was in trouble because he called his recovery coach in California to set up a meeting. By the following morning, Michael had taken his aunt’s car and disappeared until evening. His aunt reported that he had damaged her car while out and about, and Kathy remembers being paralyzed about what to do next. She said she couldn’t think straight but decided to file a Section 35 as she left for work that day. Kathy asked her mother, who lived next door, to check on Michael and learned that he was taking a shower in Kathy’s house. Kathy’s mother checked again later and called back saying, “Get home now!” and hung up. Kathy tried to call her back to let her know there was Narcan on her dresser in her bedroom, but the phone was busy, so she raced home to her worst nightmare: Michael had overdosed and was dead.
“I felt horrible because I had been mad at him for what he did to the car -- we were all mad at him for that. I was in a state of disbelief for a long time. I had a hard time leaving the house for almost a year,” Kathy said.
She took three weeks off from work but then decided it might be good to be busy rather than dwell on what had happened. Even then she was very depressed. “I went to work, came home and ate, and went to bed. That was it. My mother finally told me I couldn’t go on like this -- and she was right.”’
Although Kathy had attended Learn to Cope meetings prior to Michael’s death, she didn’t feel she could go there now. She still had another son who was struggling with addiction, but now she had a foot in both worlds and didn’t know where to go for support. She was invited her to share her story at an LTC facilitator training in Holyoke. But when Kathy arrived, she recognized many people from LTC, and that triggered her grief in a way that made her break down. She was not ready yet.
A few months later, Kathy was invited to a meeting in Worcester to brainstorm about a one-on-one peer grief support that was coming together, and she was immediately interested. She said: “This time it felt healing to be around others who had been through what I had.” Eventually, she also decided “this is the way that I’m going to help other people the way they helped me.”
Kathy became a member of the first Peer Grief Ally training in 2020, completing the program that December. Soon after, she was matched with her first bereaved person and continues to check in with the person periodically. Kathy also joined Still Learning Still Coping -- a weekly support group for people who have lost a loved one to substance use while still dealing with the harsh reality of another family member struggling with addiction. She meets with other Peer Grief Allies once a month to help support each other and share resources and information.
Kathy continues to reach out to the recovery community by doing what she can to meet their needs. “I try to do any good I can in memory of Michael,” she says. She provides personal care kits and gift cards for coffee to people in sober houses and hosts a pizza party every year on his birthday and the anniversary of his passing. Michael is the invisible guest of honor at each of these parties.
From the moment Kathy learned Michael was in trouble five years before his death, she was there every step of the way, like so many other bereaved parents. She continues to be there by reaching out to others who have experienced overdose loss and those in recovery. Her love for Michael is apparent in everything she does and shines on through each act she commits in his name.
You never said I’m leaving.
You never said goodbye
You were gone before I knew it,
And only God knew why
A million times I needed you
A million times I cried
If Love alone could have saved you
You never would have died.”