Dennis Gravelle Peer Grief Helper

Dennis and Jacob Gravelle
 Dennis and Jacob Gravelle

Dennis Gravelle Peer Grief Helper

By Kerry J. Bickford, VOICES Editor

When Dennis and Linda Gravelle’s son died 13 years ago, they were lost. Years of desperate interventions, residential treatments and countless placements ended in a field in Winchendon, MA where Jacob Gravelle’s battle with substance use disorder came to an end.

A few months later, Jacob’s parents wandered into a meeting of The Compassionate Friends, where there was only one other family who had suffered an overdose loss. “Eventually, there was a lot more company,” Gravelle said. But in the meantime, they had found a place where others understood what they were going through. There, they began to feel the support of a peer-led community, one that would inspire them in ways they could not, at that moment, even imagine.

Jacob Gravelle, the oldest of three sons, was a mischievous, energetic and outgoing kid who seemed to get along with everyone. He and his brothers loved to play ball in their neighborhood, and when Jacob began playing Little League, his father recalled watching him hit the hardest home run he had ever witnessed. Gravelle shook his head and smiled at the thought of the good memory.

But by the age of 14, Jacob had strayed off the fairly typical path he was on and began hanging out with the wrong crowd. This resulted in drug experimentation, an arrest and a juvenile detention center—which continued into a downward spiral. After spending some time in a house of correction and being substance-free for a significant period of time, his family warned him about the danger of using drugs at the level he had been using prior to his arrest. In spite of this plea for Jacob’s life, they were devastated to receive a call that he had died of an overdose on Sept. 4, 2009.

Dennis and Linda were immediately confronted by the difference in how they were grieving the loss of their son. While Linda grieved openly, crying daily, Dennis recalled how much harder it was for him to do that. At one point, he decided to attend a sibling group to confront the grief that he had never dealt with at age 11 over the loss of a baby brother, and he was stunned by the dramatic increase in heart rate his Fitbit picked up on when he was there. He began to understand the cumulative effect that not confronting grief had played on his psyche over the years. Dennis said it changed his perspective on everything. He realized then how important it was for him to grieve the loss of his brother, and he began to think hard about how he was going to grieve the loss of his son.

“I decided to take some of his best traits and honor him, and to take that negative energy and become a better person instead,” Gravelle said. “Jacob personified love, warmth and he was funny. That is what I chose to remember.”

Gravelle carried that message forward as he continued to attend TCF meetings, where the motto was “we need not walk alone.”  He began to realize that helping was healing, and increased his involvement by reaching out to “the walking wounded,” using his lived experience to support others as he navigated his own grief. As Gravelle explained, “I discovered my niche, which is to help people help others.”

Shortly after Jacob’s death, Dennis became active in the local chapter of TCF—eventually joining the steering committee. Within a year, he became the chapter’s co-leader—serving with Gail DerBoghosian—which he continued to do for three and a half years. In 2018, Gravelle became TCF’s regional coordinator for Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and in 2020 he was elected to serve on the TCF National Board of Directors. His wife, Linda Gravelle, has also been very active in the organization, serving on the local steering committee and becoming the treasurer for the North Central Massachusetts chapter. They often travel to meetings together, which has brought them closer together. Even when they are not always in sync with their grief, they have great empathy for each other. 

Together with their family, Dennis and Linda take time to reminisce about their son, and have special rituals in his memory each year on the anniversary of his death. They share stories around a bonfire and focus on the joyful ways Jacob lived—not how he died. 

Early on after Jacob’s death, a few of his friends stopped by and offered to help paint Gravelle’s house, at a time when he was too preoccupied with grief to think or even care about it. They spent a week together working, laughing and telling stories about Jacob, and this was a gift that Dennis has never forgotten. It drove home his realization, like so many other parents of children who died by overdose, that Jacob was so much more than the way he died. He left lasting, loving memories with people who paid it forward by doing something he would have done. 

“I was never a hugger before Jacob’s death,” Dennis said. “I am now.” He smiles at me, and I can feel that hug across the miles, through the computer screen and straight into my heart.