Gretchen Saari (right) and Debbie Warfield talk about a new Snohomish chapter of GRASP — Grief Recovery After Substance Passing. With them is Cathi Lee. All three Everett women lost sons to overdoses. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Gretchen Saari (right) and Debbie Warfield talk about a new Snohomish chapter of GRASP — Grief Recovery After Substance Passing. With them is Cathi Lee. All three Everett women lost sons to overdoses. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

‘A place to turn for solace’ when addiction kills a loved one

The GRASP support group — Grief Recovery After Substance Passing — is starting a chapter in Snohomish County.

At a table outside an Everett cafe, three mothers talked about their sons, cherished young men, lost to addiction. With heavy hearts but the resolve to help others, Gretchen Saari, Debbie Warfield and Cathi Lee have told their stories before.

Now, they’re reaching out with an invitation. A new support group called GRASP — Grief Recovery After Substance Passing — will have its first meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Everett Public Library’s Activity Room.

“There’s a need,” said Saari, whose story of losing two sons to heroin was published early this year in The Herald.

Saari was the driving force behind the formation of a GRASP chapter in Snohomish County. The group is one of just two statewide. The nonprofit has chapters in 37 states and Canada. Warfield, whose 24-year-old son died of a heroin overdose in 2012, is helping Saari start the local group.

After losing her son, Warfield attended an event where discussion focused on addiction among people who are homeless. “There’s such a misconception. They were missing half the story,” said Warfield, whose family lives in Everett’s historic Northwest Neighborhood.

Spencer Warfield, a former Everett High football player, was studying at Everett Community College to become a firefighter when he died of a heroin overdose. “This could be any one of us,” his mother said Wednesday.

In April, the Snohomish Health District honored Debbie and Mike Warfield and Cathi and David Lee. The two Everett couples, among recipients of the agency’s 2018 Health Champion Awards, were recognized for their work to organize “A Night to Remember, A Time to Act,” an Overdose Awareness Day event last August. The second annual event drew a crowd — including people in recovery, grieving families, elected officials and law enforcement, — to the Snohomish County Courthouse Plaza.

The Lees, who like Saari and Warfield live in north Everett, endured the loss of their older son in December 2015. An Eagle Scout who had lettered in basketball and cross country at Everett High, 20-year-old Corey Lee was an Eastern Washington University student when he died of an overdose.

Everett’s Cathi Lee talks Wednesday with other women who lost children to overdoses. They will be part of a new chapter of GRASP, Grief Recovery After Substance Passing. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Everett’s Cathi Lee talks Wednesday with other women who lost children to overdoses. They will be part of a new chapter of GRASP, Grief Recovery After Substance Passing. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Cathi Lee has shared his story to bring addiction out of the darkness. In 2016, she joined in a running event, carrying the names of recovering or deceased addicts. The name of my youngest child, who died in a drug-related crime the following year, was among those sewn into the blue felt heart she carried.

As word gets out about GRASP, Saari said families from as far as Bellingham have contacted her about attending next week’s meeting. It’s not just for parents. Any loved one mourning a substance-related death — spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, sibling, son or daughter — is welcome.

After joining in a health district workshop several months ago, Saari saw a gap: “There was no place for people to go talk, people like us,” she said.

A retired school counselor, Saari has seen more openness in discussing addiction since her younger son, Jeffrey Saari, died in 2009. He was 33. Like his brother, Ed Saari lost his life to a heroin overdose. He had made many attempts at treatment and recovery when he died in 2017 at age 45.

The women acknowledged not only their pain, but their children’s suffering as they battled addiction. “What they had to go through, it erodes self-esteem. It’s a lifelong thing,” said Warfield, who believes Spencer “knew he was going to die.”

In Snohomish County alone, there were 158 overdose deaths in 2018, 24 more than in 2017. Last year, 124 of the deaths were from opioids, 51 of those from heroin, according to the Snohomish Health District.

Pat and Russ Wittberger, a California couple, founded GRASP after the 1994 death of their 20-year-old daughter. Saari said their book, “When a Child Dies From Drugs,” was a helpful guide in starting a chapter here.

The groups vary, but with a shared experience. She said GRASP was created to provide “a place to turn for solace” when many see those who die as a result of drugs as “less than good people.”

“People still judge you,” Warfield said. “You want people to know your child is no less important than anyone.”

Addiction and how they died “doesn’t define them,” said Lee, who tries to remember Corey as “a cute boy who loved archery.”

More than three years after losing her son, Lee said Warfield’s unconditional support has been a blessing. They all hope others will find that support.

“It will be nice to be with people who know what we went through,” Lee said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

New grief group for substance loss

The first meeting of Snohomish County’s GRASP, Grief Recovery After Substance Passing, is scheduled for 6-7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Everett Public Library’s Activity Room, 2702 Hoyt Ave. The group offers support, information and understanding to those who have lost someone due to substance use or addiction. To register or for information, email: grasp.sno@gmail.com or call 425-381-3320.

Learn about the GRASP organization at: www.grasphelp.org

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