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The City Journals

GRASP provides support for people who have lost loved ones to substance misuse

Apr 30, 2022 12:01PM ● By Peri Kinder

By Peri Kinder | [email protected]

Katara Martin’s younger brother was supposed to celebrate his birthday. But instead of a party, Martin ended up planning his funeral. In November 2020, Dalen Nyberg died 18 days before his 26th birthday from an accidental drug overdose.

The grief was overwhelming, made even worse by the way she felt stigmatized in her community.

“He was not a bad person. He got lost and eventually the addiction took over,” Martin said. “I call it ‘disenfranchised grief.’ When someone dies of an overdose, people don’t know how to respond to you. You feel very much alone.”

She looked online for support groups for people who’ve lost family members through substance-related overdoses, but there weren’t many options. While communicating with the medical examiner, Martin saw a link to GRASP on his website and found a new community.

Grief Recovery After Substance Passing has chapters all over the United States and Canada, but there wasn’t one in Utah. Martin reached out to the national headquarters and was given permission to start a GRASP chapter in Murray in summer 2021.

“I didn’t know what I was looking for or that I was even looking for something,” Martin said. “GRASP was a solace for me. The people there are going through the same experience. You’re not going through it alone.”

Tamara Olt, M.D., is GRASP’s national executive director, based in Illinois. When her son Josh died of an overdose in 2012 at the age of 16, she was shattered. Finding a GRASP chapter was a lifeline, providing a safe place to heal and connect with other families suffering through the same type of loss.

“The first year or two is horrific,” Olt said. “You’re just in a daze and a fog, trying to figure out what happened. But don’t let anyone tell you how to grieve. I had to let go of the ‘Why?’ and the ‘What if?’ and forgive myself.”

Olt, Martin, and many GRASP members, now advocate for fentanyl testing strips, clean syringe exchange programs, safe using sites, and the decriminalization of drug crimes, hoping for mental health counseling instead of jail time or prison.

Martin said Naloxone kits (to help reverse an overdose) are free at most public libraries in Salt Lake County, but said most people experiencing an overdose need two doses to be revived.

GRASP’s national Facebook page has more than 13,000 followers, and the number grows every day as more families lose loved ones to substance misuse.

“One in five people know someone who’s passed away from a substance-related death. This group says they’re not alone,” Martin said. “There are lots of people who’ve had this same experience. Find a group like this one and start going as soon as possible. It makes you feel better and it helps heal you.”

The location of GRASP meetings is kept private until a person can verify they’ve lost a loved one through a substance-related death, whether it’s alcohol, street drugs or prescriptions. At the in-person, monthly meetings, people can share their grief, their anger, their feelings of shame, blame and loss, and their love for family members who have passed away.

Contact Martin at [email protected] for more information about the Greater Salt Lake Chapter of GRASP. There is no charge to attend the group but preregistration is required.

“Drug use is heavily stigmatized,” Olt said. “So not everyone is helpful and supportive when you lose a family member because of an overdose. It’s so important to learn that you’re not alone, that this terrible thing has happened to other people.”