It’s 7 p.m. on a Monday and the members of The Beading Hearts, a support group for parents whose children have died of a drug overdose, are chatting casually on the Zoom videoconferencing app.
Ordinarily, the group would meet in person — at an office or a member’s home — but the social-distancing required to slow the spread of COVID-19 has them beaming in virtually for a healing session.
“I’m hoping that even with our disconnect, we feel a connection,” says Linda Nuszen, 61, one of the group’s founders who is running the meeting from her Patchogue home.
At first, the mood is lighthearted. One of the women sitting in homes across Long Island is sipping a glass of wine, another smiles under a jaunty-looking fedora. One jokes that on Zoom, The Beading Hearts look more like “The Brady Bunch.”
But once the banter ends, the serious work begins for the Long Island self-help, advocacy and crafts group. Social distancing has deprived Beading Hearts of their favorite activity — group sessions around a table stringing beads with inspirational messages suitable for hanging on car mirrors that are sold as a fundraiser or given to newly grieving parents. (During the New York PAUSE, beads are still being strung at home and mailed to mourning families.)
The Zoom app facilitates another healing activity, as one mother after another speaks lovingly of the children, whom they call "angels," lost to drug overdoses as recently as last fall and as long ago as a decade. As they speak, they hold up “angel pictures” of their children.
Rosann Wolf, 67, a Nesconset card shop owner, spoke about her daughter Andrea, also known as “Drea,” a music lover who wrote essays and poetry but began drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, apparently triggered by anxiety and bullying in school. Drea died of a heroin and fentanyl overdose four days after her 30th birthday in 2015. “I’m always going to miss her,” Wolf, who has four other children, told the group.
Another mother spoke of the pain of watching a lost child’s friends “get married and have babies.” And the group attempted to comfort another mom, attending her second meeting, who teared up remembering a child who died last year of a drug overdose.
The evening ended with “mindfulness meditation as coach Steve Interrante instructed the women to close their eyes and “connect with our angels in the angelic realm.”
The COVID-19 crisis hit at the same time Long Island was reporting a drop in lethal drug overdoses. Opioid-related deaths in Suffolk County dropped from 380 in 2018 to 283 in 2019, according to the county’s Heroin and Opiate Epidemic Advisory Panel. In Nassau, 147 people died of overdoses in 2018, down 20% from the 184 fatal overdoses in 2017, according to the county’s most recent data.
Nevertheless, health care and addiction specialists have expressed fears of an uptick in fatal overdoses because of social distancing. “Whatever gains we might have been dancing in the streets over three weeks ago, I think we’ve lost some ground in the middle of the pandemic,” said addiction expert Jeffrey Reynolds, president and chief executive officer of the Family and Children’s Association in Mineola, which operates outpatient treatment centers on Long Island.
A 'lonely road'
The Beading Hearts, which has more than 300 members on its Facebook page and about 100 active members who live as far away as Maryland and Colorado, is not a typical support group for grieving parents, according to experts in the field. In addition to attending weekly meetings, members spread their hopeful, healing message along with gifts of beads to the residents of sober homes and to inmates in county jails. During the pandemic, they have also added a meditation meeting every other Monday and once a month Friday healing classes, also online. In normal times they show up at funerals and wakes, unannounced but always welcome, according to Nuszen, to hand out more beads and invite grieving parents to join their fold. Both the jail program as well as attending funerals and wakes have been suspended during the coronavirus outbreak.
The group provides an opportunity for parents to connect with others who “walk a pretty difficult and lonely road,” Reynolds said.
When a child dies of a drug overdose, Reynolds said, “The grief process is different than if you lost a kid to cancer or some other more 'acceptable' disease. It’s like riding the craziest roller coaster in the world and coming to an abrupt stop when that person has died.”
“When your child is suffering from addiction you are living in secrecy and isolation,” Nuszen said. “The thread of the family is just pulled apart, everybody’s blaming everyone else. Families end up not knowing how to talk together.”
Nuszen is intimately familiar with the “roller coaster” of life and death with a child addicted to drugs. Five years ago, Adam, the oldest of her three children, died of an overdose during a stay in a substance-abuse rehabilitation center.
Adam had been “a curious and sensitive type who grew up to be very caring, humble and creative,” Nuszen said. A prolific songwriter and a talented guitar player, Adam was the loyal friend who always volunteered to be the designated driver, she said.
However, “as he got older perhaps he was uncomfortable in his skin,” suffering a “delusional breakdown” in his 20s, Nuszen said. He spent a decade in and out of hospitals, first for the treatment of mental illness and eventually for an addiction to prescription pain medicine that led to a deadly heroin habit.
“We went to the end of the Earth to save our child, and oftentimes it was with a hefty expense and wiping out accounts,” Nuszen said.
Messages of hope
After Adam’s death, Nuszen and her husband, Paul, now 71, who own a decorating store in Southampton Village, founded Look Up For Adam, a nonprofit foundation whose name was inspired by Adam’s fascination with the heavens. The Nuszens’ two other grown children are also involved in making beads and giving them to young people.
The first fundraiser, held at 89 North, a concert hall in Patchogue, drew a crowd of about 200 people. This year’s March 8 benefit dinner and concert raised more than $20,000, with a large portion benefiting The Family Service League, which ordinarily has hosted three Beading Hearts meetings a month. The Beading Hearts also sell their beads at Patchogue’s Alive After Five street festival and other fairs.
The Beading Hearts was founded as a tribute to Adam’s therapeutic hobby of stringing beads together to spell out such inspirational words and phrases as “Love” and “Believe.” He gave them out as auto mirror ornaments to people he cared about, Nuszen said.
“When Adam beaded, it brought him joy to create and give something uniquely beautiful to those he loved,” said Candice Martin, 38, of Park Slope, Brooklyn, Adam’s girlfriend for the last four years of his life. Martin, who describes herself as in recovery from substance-abuse, has also attended Beading Hearts meetings.
Nuszen soon recruited Janet D’Agostino, 58, of Patchogue, whose son, Vaughn, had died five months before Adam. Vaughn had been “compassionate and wise, an old soul” until a series of lower-back surgeries led to an oxycodone addiction, D’Agostino said. A neighbor of Nuszen introduced the two women, who became fast friends one morning over breakfast.
“We did a lot of crying and a lot of hugging, and she brought me beads,” D’Agostino recalled. After Nuszen left that day, D’Agostino, who also has a daughter, said, “I got in the car and put the beads on the mirror, and watching them sway and click, I started to smile and feel like Vaughn and Adam are here.”
Members attribute a magical quality to the beads when they are making them and once they are given away.
“When you make the beads, you’re not thinking about your grief. It’s a relief from the pain,” Wolf said. Although she now believes that addiction is “something that can be in someone that just gets triggered,” for years Wolf struggled to forgive herself for missing the early warning signs that led to Drea’s overdose, which occurred at home during a relapse after a year of recovery.
“It was the worst thing that could ever happen in your life,” she said.
“I didn’t think I would ever be able to say I’d be healed,” continued Wolf, who also found solace through meditation and Reiki healing. “The best way to help myself is to help other people heal, to get those terrible thoughts out of our minds,” Wolf said.
Support without judgment
The Beading Hearts can be a lifeline for parents who feel uncomfortable in bereavement groups that don’t specifically deal with addiction issues, said Anthony Rizzuto, a licensed social worker and the founder and executive director of the not-for-profit Families in Support of Treatment. “There is a stigma associated with addiction, and for the person who hasn’t experienced that, I could see how some would look at it as, ‘they made a choice to do this and if you had done something differently, maybe your kid would be OK.’ ”
Beading Hearts member Betty-Anne Watts, 60, of Long Beach was a recently retired Nassau County 911 operator when she came home one day in 2015 to find her son passed out on the floor from a heroin overdose. She resuscitated him with CPR, but a day later he died at a hospital at the age of 33.
“When you lose a child, anything else is a piece of cake,” Watts said at the recent meeting.
She had searched in vain for a support group where she wouldn’t feel negatively branded as the parent of a “drug addict.”
“There’s still such a stigma attached to drug addicts,” Watts said of parents she met at other grief support groups. “Their kids are dying of car accidents and cancer, and they look at you like you don’t belong, as if my son deserved to die.”
The Beading Hearts offer comfort and support without judgments, members say. This month, they’ve also been mourning one of their own, Beverly Artz, of Plainview, who died April 7 of complications from the coronavirus. Artz had been a member for about three years after losing her son, Evan.
Although they are currently making do with virtual hugs, they look forward to returning to another tradition — bear hugs from Nuszen.
“Linda hugs the heck out of you,” said Lori Oropez, 58, of Selden, a medical biller who joined the group after losing two children to drug overdoses. “She hugs your broken pieces back together.”
Added D’Agostino: “Nobody wants to be in a group like this, but the members are amazing.”
ABOUT BEADING HEARTS
To join The Beading Hearts or make a donation, visit beadinghearts.org or call 631-278-1914.