Peer Grief Helper Profile: Aimee Manzoni-D'Arpino
By Kerry J. Bickford, VOICES Editor
Experiencing an overdose loss of someone close can leave complicated feelings to sort through for grieving friends, family, colleagues, and others left behind. The first thing that many bereaved people report is a communication gap, created by an intentional effort for the person with a substance-use disorder to hide their disease or their shame. Sometimes they are trying to protect those who care for them, or they have already given up on themselves. Either way, they withdraw and isolate, increasing the risk of an already risky situation. This results in regret, self-blame, and overwhelming sadness in the minds of those left behind who are left to wonder if, somehow, they could have made a difference.
In Emmett’s case, his mom, Aimee, had last seen him two months before learning of his death on April 20, 2016. He was the oldest of three and particularly bright. “Too smart for his own good,” said his mom. ”He was a thrill-seeker and a risk-taker who was “a ray of sunshine” but who was somewhat of an Eddie Haskell, she said. Emmett could turn on the charm when necessary, which proved helpful in many situations, and he pushed his limits as naturally as some of us breathe; it was just what he did. Emmett attended a private high school on a full scholarship but was asked to leave at the end of his sophomore year when he was caught using spice on campus. At that point, his parents thought it was merely a blip on the radar, and he went on to graduate from public high school with honors and get into college on a full academic scholarship. But six weeks into that experience, Emmett overdosed for the first time, information that was not shared with his family then because of HIPPA laws. By Christmas of 2014, Emmett had broken down and admitted his substance use to his father, although he was not ready for help. In May 2015, Emmett’s parents convinced him to leave college on a medical withdrawal to enter treatment and focus on his recovery. He spent a solid, sober summer before returning to school in August of that year. But Emmett began to use drugs again, and his family saw him sporadically during this time. By April of 2016, Aimee had not seen her son since February, when she received a message from the same hospital he had been treated for his first overdose. She was immediately concerned because the hospital had not called the first time, and she wondered why they were calling now. Before she and Emmett’s father, William, could reach the hospital, they spoke to Emmet’s girlfriend and learned the devastating news that their son had died of an overdose.
Aimee began to put the story together retroactively in the weeks and months following Emmett’s death. She realized then that his life had been unraveling, which explained why they hadn’t heard from him for two months. Although he was on medication for opioid-use disorder, Emmett was injecting drugs toward the end of the month to help get through to the next one. He was “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” and he sold most of his possessions, except for a BMX bike he had held on to since 6th grade. When Aimee went to collect his belongings, there was almost nothing left. Still, Emmett had managed to make the Dean’s list, a testimony to his determination; he just ran out of time. From his first overdose to his last, it was an 18-month roller-coaster journey.
Aimee had attended Learn to Cope for the support of others who live with addiction, but “I never went to another meeting after he (Emmett) died,” she said. She turned her focus to her other two children, including her nine-year-old daughter, Alice, whom Emmett was “like a father” to because of their vast age difference. In the summer of 2016, Aimee sent Alice to Camp Erin for grief support and was relieved by Alice’s excitement about talking to another girl who had lost her mom to an overdose. It was so important to Aimee that the death of their brother to SUD is not something his siblings should ever feel ashamed of. She was determined to educate them about stigma so they, in turn, could help others.
Aimee also became chairwoman of the Massachusetts Addiction Policy Forum, advocating for changes to the application of current HIPPA requirements. She testified before Congress about notifying next of kin in the event of a life-threatening event, such as overdose and other issues. She felt that the hospital (the same one where Emmett had been seen for overdosing both the first and last times) was not educated about this and that the outcome could have been different had there been more communication. The laws do allow families to be notified, but the application and follow-through seem to vary from one hospital to another.
Aimee also set up a “Friends of Emmett” support group, with dinner, a service reflection and meditation at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bridgewater, with the help of her priest and some caring friends. The group focused specifically on supporting those living with someone in active addiction or loss. There, they shared conversations without fear of judgment reflected in the faces of so many others. There, they held onto each other for support and strength. There, they began to heal.
This model was so successful they added a youth component in 2018, adding art therapy and a social worker for siblings, children, and other young people who have experienced a similar loss.
Aimee and Rev. Natasha Stewart soon began to offer Narcan training throughout the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. She expanded her reach further by training to become a group facilitator for The Sun Will Rise Foundation. Although her group discussions, held in Foxboro, began meeting in person in 2020, they have not yet resumed post-Covid. It is Aimee’s sincerest hope that they will be back supporting each other by spring of 2022. In her passion for overdose awareness advocacy, Aimee became a member of the planning committee for SADOD’s first grief conference this year and is working hard with a small group of volunteers on this event.
Aimee’s commitment to those affected by substance use disorder continues to light a path toward providing support to others. She has made it her mission to witness, comfort, and validate those who have experienced an overdose death. As she explained it, “It is such a taboo to talk about overdose, and it’s hard to understand why. Our losses matter and our grief needs to be respected.”