It’s a community no one wants to join.
Yet the ranks of people who have lost a loved one to the opioid epidemic grow daily, as the crisis continues to claim an estimated 192 lives each day. And within that group there is another circle — those bound together in grief by the shared experience of multiple deaths in one family from the crisis. Of losing more than one child, more than one sibling, more than one friend to opioids.
It’s a striking phenomenon, but one that hasn’t yet garnered a tremendous amount of focused study by researchers, according to Dr. Miriam Komaromy, medical director of the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center.
When it comes to substance use disorder, there are clear genetic factors at play, she said. Add to that the potential of shared childhood trauma or environmental influences, like the presence of drugs in the home from a friend or relative, and family members could have other common influences for substance use issues. Living with a sibling or family member who is struggling with addiction also poses its own trauma, she said.
“There are so many factors that probably contribute to it,” she told Boston.com, speaking on the loss of multiple siblings or children. “Shared genetics, shared environments, the second sibling having access to drugs through the first sibling and being exposed to the availability of drugs. So it’s not surprising that it occurs, but fate is so cruel. It’s hard to imagine being a parent and having to live with that.”
Komaromy said addiction experts are learning more and more the importance of addressing the needs of the whole family when one member is experiencing a substance use disorder. Situations where more than one family member dies or is struggling with addiction issues underlines that importance, she said.
“The likelihood of depression and traumatic reactions in the other family members, in losing more than one offspring — [there] might be an extremely high likelihood of a series of negative consequences for other family members,” she said. “So the whole family is kind of at risk then of some detrimental outcomes.”
While it isn’t clear how many people are experiencing the phenomenon, Komaromy said more situations might come to light if the stigma around addiction is successfully decreased and people feel more comfortable speaking about what happened in their families.
“It would make sense that we’d see more of it over time unfortunately,” she said.
Below, four local parents share the stories of the children they lost to the epidemic.
Vincent and Domenic Rosa (1983-2003 & 1981-2004)
Charles Rosa doesn’t remember why he was home that day and not at work.
But the father of six will never forget the words he exchanged with his sons, Domenic and Vincent, on that day in the mid-90s when he learned they were starting to experiment with drugs and alcohol. They were about 13 or 14 at the time, he said, and he overheard Vincent getting sick in the bathroom.
When asked, Dominic told his father they had been down at the bus stop, drinking alcohol and “smoking something,” Rosa recalled.
“My memory sucks, but I can remember it pretty clearly,” he said. “I said, ‘What do you mean? What are you guys doing?’”
His boys told him not to worry, they’d never try anything else.
Rosa said he thought it was a phase that would pass. They were good boys with good hearts — compassionate and “loyal to a fault.” They wrote their mother letters every Mother’s Day. As they got older, they went on to teach hockey clinics to kids at the Peabody skating rink.
But it didn’t pass. Even as they excelled playing hockey in high school, Domenic and Vincent continued to struggle with substance use, eventually progressing to opioids.
In 2003, 20-year-old Vincent tried fentanyl for the first time and overdosed.
“I got that phone call that nobody wants to get,” Rosa said.
He rushed to the hospital, not knowing his second oldest son had already passed away.
He tried to shake his son awake in the hospital bed.
“He broke my heart that day,” Rosa said. “He wouldn’t wake up, and the lady said, ‘You know, he’s passed, he’s gone.’”
“It’s a bad nightmare that I’m in,” he added.
At the time of Vincent’s death, Domenic was doing well at a treatment center in Long Beach, California, and running a sober living home. But he soon moved back home to Peabody, despite pleas from his loved ones to stay in treatment where he was.
Rosa said he suspects his oldest son felt guilty after Vincent’s death and maybe felt he hadn’t set a good example for his younger brother.
“I think that he thought it should have been him,” Rosa said.
When Domenic moved back, he stopped going to meetings. He fatally overdosed on Nov. 24, 2004.
Once again, Rosa got a call from a hospital with words he’ll never forget.
“He was dead, and I buried my second son,” he said.
In the following years, he almost lost a third.
Charles was still in high school at the time and had also been experimenting with substances. When his brothers — his “idols” — died, his substance use became a problem, Rosa said.
“And people would say, ‘Well, what the hell’s wrong with him? He just watched his brothers die?’ But that’s not how it goes,” Rosa said of his third son’s struggles. “You don’t know what to do, so you self-medicate. He started doing the same thing.”
Determined not to lose another child, he moved with Charles to Seabrook, New Hampshire, where he thought there might be less access to drugs.
But within a few days, his son told him it was just as bad.
“After several failed attempts, Charles was able to find a place and get the treatment that worked for him through some tough love and therapy and a replacement activity which ended up being mixed martial arts, which is now his career,” Rosa said.
Charles has been sober for 10 years and is now one of the top UFC fighters in the world.
Since the deaths of Vincent and Domenic, Rosa has been working to raise awareness and provide education about addiction, sharing his family’s story with young people in particular through his charity “Chucky’s Fight.”
Compared to when his sons first started struggling, he said there is “100 percent” more discussion now about opioids and their dangers. And more people he knows have lost loved ones.
“I used to be the only member of the club,” he said. “There are so many people that I knew before when my sons passed and now they have a son that passed or their daughter just passed or their nephew.”
He believes his sons are guiding him to fight addiction and the key to battling the epidemic is education, particularly in schools.
“I was an uneducated parent, my sons were uneducated,” Rosa said of Domenic and Vincent. “I think if I knew a little more, if I didn’t think it was going to pass — I didn’t take it lightly — but I think if I knew more maybe I would have taken some different steps.”
Robert and Marques Smead (1979-2013 & 1984-2015)
There isn’t a day that goes by that Gail Texeira doesn’t think of her two sons.
Robert was the clown of the pair, always playing jokes and making the people around him laugh, she said. His younger brother, Marques, dreamed of looking out for others, becoming a state trooper after returning from his service in the Marines.
But her boys, her only children, died from overdoses within a few years of one another.
“I missed so many nights of sleep — I still do,” she told Boston.com. “So many things happened. It was just the hardest thing I had to endure in my entire life. Losing a child, burying children, is not something you expect to do.”
Texeira isn’t exactly sure when her sons started struggling with substance use, but she believes it wasn’t until they were both adults. She was devastated when she found out.
“Everybody thinks there’s a typical drug user look, but there really isn’t,” she said. “My boys walked a straight line, and then they somehow went to the other side.”
As a child, Robert struggled with his self-esteem, Texeira said. But he flourished after he was introduced to Golden Gloves boxing, gaining confidence with time spent at the gym. He went on to work as a supervisor in a residential facility, working with troubled youth. He got married and had two daughters.
He was a good father, Texeira said.
“My sons were the type of young men that would walk into a room and everybody would notice them,” she said. “Because they had beautiful personalities. I raised them to speak up, advocate. I raised them to not discriminate against anybody or anything. They were awesome boys.”
Marques went straight from high school into the Marines, attending boot camp at Parris Island. When he was deployed overseas, he sent her flowers and money. But she noticed a change when he returned home for leave — he didn’t seem to be himself.
“It was like his whole soul was sucked out of him,” Texeira said. “And he didn’t have — he acted like he didn’t care anymore.”
When he was discharged, Marques started working as a correctional officer for a few years. At one point, he was sent to a treatment facility for what Texeira thought at the time was alcoholism. She would learn later it was for heroin use.
When her younger son visited her after his return from rehab, he told her that Robert was using heroin.
Soon after, she discovered that her sons were in fact using together. And in the ensuing years, she said both her sons started “backing away” from her as she tried to get them help for their addictions.
“I tried to get both my sons into counseling — I tried to Section 12 them,” Texeira said. “I went before a judge, which was the most painful thing for me to do, to try to put my sons in three-month rehab.”
Her requests, made separately for each of her children at different times, were denied.
Robert died of a heroin overdose on Valentine’s Day in 2013 at the age of 33.
After his brother died, Marques promised Texeira that she would never have to bury another son. But his mother said she had a feeling that wasn’t true, even as he made strides at sobriety. She said she knew that her younger son was carrying guilt over his older brother’s death.
“I knew that when Bobby died, that Marques was going to go,” Texeira said.
On Nov. 20, 2015, Marques died of a heroin overdose at the age of 31.
Texeira’s sons are buried together, with Robert’s ashes tucked inside his brother’s casket, which is buried at the National Cemetery in Bourne.
Since their deaths, Texeira said it has been frustrating to encounter the stigma associated with opioid addiction. At first, she didn’t tell anyone the circumstances of her sons’ deaths. But she hopes that by being open about her family’s experience, others might seek the help they need.
“I’m not ashamed of this anymore,” she said. “They were good people. They were good men.”
Texeira said she’s been talking with other parents who have lost children, providing what support she can through their shared experience.
“Sometimes you can’t take it one day at a time — sometimes you have to take it 15 minutes at a time,” she said. “It’s really hard. … It doesn’t get easier.”
The Rhode Island mother urged anyone who is struggling, not to be ashamed, to reach out to their friends and family for support and never give up.
“Keep trying no matter how hard it is,” she said. “There’s plenty of people out there that care, love you. … Don’t be ashamed. That’s what it was with my sons. They were ashamed. They didn’t want me to see them that way. I loved my sons unconditionally — I would have accepted them any way.”
Dennis and Sean Thibault (1981-2015 & 1982-2015)
At first, everything was a painful reminder of Penny Thibault’s two sons.
Songs on the radio or silly commercials — particularly the ones from Allstate featuring the character “Mayhem” — were unbearable for months. They remind her of her youngest, Sean, who used to run from whatever room he was in to watch the commercials, his laugh filling the house.
“It would kill me to even hear his voice — that ‘Mayhem’ — it would be like, ‘Oh Sean, oh Sean,’” she told Boston.com. “It was breaking my heart.”
Now, she said she’s embracing the still-painful reminders of her two sons, Dennis and Sean, who died together on June 18, 2015, from pure fentanyl poisoning in Burlington, Vermont. They were 34 and 32.
“There is no getting past this,” Thibault said of her grief. “You have to walk with it every day. Side by side. You have to learn how to do that, and it’s difficult. Because all of those reminders are like a knife in your heart.”
Sean and his older brother Dennis, Thibault’s middle son, were only a year-and-a-half apart and complete opposites. As a child, Dennis was timid, scrambling back away from waves at the beach. His younger brother Sean, meanwhile, jumped into the deep end of a pool at the age of 2, even though he didn’t know how to swim.
Sean was interested in history, taken with stories of knights. He was always in motion and grew up to be a master machinist. Dennis had a passion for the future and was fascinated by space exploration, growing up to work in information technology.
Both loved, and were excelling in, their careers, Thibault said.
They were best friends growing up, going to concerts and ball games together with a shared group of friends. And as adults they spent a lot of time together still, she said.
“There was no indication anything was wrong,” she said of the years leading up to their deaths.
The first and only indication she and her family received was when they died. There were no struggles of getting them into treatment, so often experienced when a family member is battling opioid addiction.
They were just gone one day.
“They were working towards their futures,” Thibault said. “They were saving in their 401Ks. They had new cars. They were everything that a parent would want in their children. We had no complaints. And so it came as a terrible shock to us when they died. I can’t even tell you — I don’t know why I didn’t die that day. It should have killed me, by all rights. It just should have.”
During the course of the investigation into Dennis and Sean’s deaths, she and her family started to learn more about when the two brothers may have started experimenting with drugs. Friends of the brothers told her that back in high school it had been common for pills, like Oxycontin, to be brought to parties. And text messages between Dennis and Sean, read by their family after their deaths, revealed the communications between the brothers about drugs were becoming prominent in the year before their deaths, she said.
“It was evident that it was becoming more frequent toward the end,” Thibault said. “So I think that they were rounding that corner to heroin. And I believe that they were actually looking for heroin, but they were dealt pure fentanyl.”
The man who sold Dennis and Sean the pure fentanyl was arrested and convicted and sentenced in federal court in 2016 of conspiring to distribute heroin. The state has since brought charges of selling a drug, death resulting, for Dennis and Sean’s fatal overdoses.
Holding the man she sees as responsible accountable for the deaths of her sons — helping prevent one person from dealing fentanyl again — has given her a purpose and resolve, Thibault said.
“I wasn’t there to help them when they needed it, but I’m going to be here to get justice for them,” she said. “But not just for them — for others. I don’t know how many families that [have had] multiple children that have been taken by this crisis, but it’s too many. I don’t care if it’s two, or 200. It’s just too many. It’s unbearable to lose a child, but to lose multiple children — it needs to stop.”
Before Dennis and Sean’s deaths, Thibault said she had no awareness of the opioid epidemic, and she felt alone with her loss. She hopes now that any time she talks about her sons she might be able to provide some education, some encouragement, to anyone who is struggling to reach out for help, to not feel alone.
“I keep their ashes right by my bed,” she said. “I can’t — it’s almost as though I need them here with me to keep on fighting. But I’m starting to feel guilty, like I’m trapping them. And when this case is over, I promised, I am going to set them free.”
Julie and David Price (1982-2016 & 1980-2019)
The day after her son’s funeral services, Doreen LoPardo spotted a blue jay outside her Woburn home.
She took it as a signal that her son, David, who died unexpectedly at the age of 39 on Oct. 29, was still with her.
“We’re so touched that the signs are happening so early,” she told Boston.com in the weeks after his death. “Because they didn’t happen as quickly for my daughter.”
LoPardo’s daughter, and only other child, Julie, died of an overdose in 2016 at the age of 34.
Both her daughter and son left behind their own young children — Julie, a little boy; David, a 9-year-old girl.
She doesn’t know yet what caused David’s death, but he’d struggled with substance use since he was in high school. In the year leading up to his death, he’d been in recovery and had appeared to be doing well. No drug paraphernalia was found near his body or in his apartment. But he’d also developed health conditions — diabetes and high blood pressure — which he wasn’t regularly taking medication for, LoPardo said.
It will still be weeks before she knows whether his death was an overdose, the result of his medical conditions, or some combination of the two. But regardless, LoPardo said she still considers her son a victim of the opioid crisis.
“What I’m learning, now that I’ve lost two, is no matter what the motivator that disease of addiction just always keeps tapping,” she said of her family’s experience. “Anything can trigger you. Anything can set you off again. And as we know, one more time can be the last time. Or one more time can get you addicted again and then you’re back in the full throttle of it.”
The brother and sister had the same group of friends as teens, and both started experimenting with drugs and alcohol in high school. LoPardo thought it was normal teenage behavior at the time. But in her 20s, Julie was introduced to using cocaine by a boyfriend and later moved on to using heroin and prescription pills.
Around that time, the siblings drifted apart, their mother said.
“I think [David] was agitated with her being with a guy … that he felt [wasn’t] good enough for her and that was taking her down the wrong path,” LoPardo said. “And it was true.”
LoPardo said her son also started using cocaine when he was in his early 20s, but, after a motorcycle accident around the age of 27, a doctor prescribed him Oxycontin.
“That was a terrible trigger,” she said.”Because I’m sure with his disease of addiction, he enjoyed the feeling of the Oxycontin.”
When he couldn’t get more than what was prescribed, her son turned to what he could find on the street. He started sniffing heroin, and LoPardo had him involuntarily committed for treatment when he was in his early 30s.
She estimated that Julie went to rehab programs for her own substance use five or six times.
“[Julie] would keep me more informed,” LoPardo said of her efforts to help her children with their addictions. “She was definitely ashamed of what was going on, but she would drop hints about cravings and keep me more informed about what was going on in her life. She was more of an open book — not 100 percent — but definitely more than David. David was 100 percent a closed book. And looking back, I think he was just ashamed of himself that he really could never beat it.”
When Julie was pregnant, she remained sober, and her family became hopeful that it was a turning point in her recovery. But she continued to struggle after her son was born, and she overdosed on June 1, 2016.
David’s use got “really bad” after his sister died, LoPardo said, recalling that she sectioned him again after Julie’s death.
LoPardo said she suspects her son was ashamed of himself — that he couldn’t help his sister with her struggles because he couldn’t help himself with the same addictions.
“He probably thought he could help himself, being the big, tall, tough guy that Dave was,” LoPardo said. “He just looked like a big, strong, strapping, healthy man. But he kept a lot of these demons a secret to himself. He didn’t share with me.”
He continued to struggle until about a year ago, when it seemed he was on track. He was getting a monthly shot of naltrexone, which helps block opioid receptors in the brain, and had started to repair relationships with family members that had been damaged during his years of drug use. The motivation in his recovery was his daughter, Madelyn, LoPardo said.
“She was the light of his life,” his mother said. “She brought him more joy than anybody.”
In the days before her son’s death, LoPardo said she started to get the sense that something might be wrong when he didn’t respond to her calls or texts over a few days. When a friend of David’s called her to say he also couldn’t reach the 39-year-old, she drove to his apartment in Peabody.
“I just had a feeling I needed to go down there,” she said.
Police conducted a well-being check and found him dead inside the apartment.
On one level, LoPardo said knowing the cause of her son’s death won’t change anything.
“He’s still gone, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “But it will matter to me, with conversations I have with his daughter as she grows up.”
Knowing, she said, will help her monitor her grandchildren — to look out for the disease that ravaged their parents’ lives and left them ashamed of their struggles.
“I want her to grow up learning that she doesn’t have to be afraid to tell her mother and I anything,” LoPardo said.