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Families keep loved ones' memories alive on Overdose Awareness Day

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Chad L. Harper
David E. Hinkley
Frankie Vitagliano Jr.
Gregory DiAntonio
Matt Guzman

The loss of a loved one to addiction is something thousands of New Jersey family and friends have in common.

The opioid and heroin epidemic has hit communities and neighborhoods hard — 1,970 people in the Garden State died from suspected overdoses this year so far, and the year-end total is expected to eclipse the number of deaths last year.

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On International Overdose Awareness Day, Aug. 31, those family and friends come together to bring awareness to the disease of addiction, to remember their loved ones and to keep their memories alive.

Every September, Gregory DiAntonio’s parents, Kreni and Pat DiAntonio, bring a little bit of Jamaica to Wildwood with a large reggae festival at Urie’s Waterfront Restaurant.

They don’t just do it for the fun music, food and crowds. It has become a way to celebrate Gregory, who had always wanted to go to a festival in Jamaica, since he died Dec. 30, 2012, of a heroin overdose.

“A lot of people come for different reasons,” Kreni said. “They know us, knew Greg or come for the good deals. But it’s an educating moment that we can show, if this can happen to Greg, a businessman from a good family, this can happen to anyone. This brings about awareness.”

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Gregory, 32, had an opioid substance use disorder for nearly 10 years, Kreni said, and eventually went from prescribed opioids to heroin. He was in Boca Raton, Florida, for treatment at the time of his death, which was caused by an overdose just before he was to enter a halfway house.

He left behind his parents, a brother and his wife of almost 9 years.

“He had been clean for three months, and then he used right before he was to go to the house, went to bed and never woke up,” Kreni said.

The DiAntonios, with help from friends and family, immediately created the Greg DiAntonio Foundation, which raises money to support families and individuals affected by addiction, as well as organizations and initiatives focused on addiction prevention, treatment and recovery.

“It’s also to keep his name alive. He was very well known and liked. A parent’s biggest fear is that nobody says their child’s name anymore and nobody talks about them,” Kreni said. “(The foundation) not only brought us together, but helped us to make sense out of Greg’s death.”

It’s hard for Laurie Johns-DeVito to talk about her son, Chad Harper, without feeling an immense sense of loss.

“I don’t believe there are any words that can truly describe the pain, horror and anxiousness that we all feel without Chad,” she said.

Harper, a graduate of Absegami High School, died Oct. 20 of an overdose while living in Orlando, Florida, near where he worked at the House of Blues in Disney Springs. It came as a shock to his mother, who said while she suspected drug use toward the end of his life, she was never able to confirm it.

“The instant the police officers came to my door at 1:30 in the morning, life as I knew it was over,” DeVito said. “The things I thought were so important no longer mattered. The guilt is overpowering. No matter how many people try and persuade me that it’s not my fault, somehow it still is.”

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Harper left behind his parents, five sisters and his daughter, Gabrielle.

DeVito said it causes her anxiety to not know all the details surrounding Harper’s last moments, unable to find out from people close to him that day, but she hopes one day they will tell her about the hows and whys so she may find some closure.

Despite not knowing much about addiction before her son’s death, DeVito now belongs to support and awareness groups on the subject, and is involved in activism efforts on the state and national levels.

“I’m so keenly aware of the grief of others now,” she said. “I read the obituaries every day, and my heart breaks when I see another child lost to this disease.”

Lori McLaughlin is grateful for the last year she and her family had with her brother, Tommy.

“He played in a high school reunion baseball game, he was able to come with us to Disney and do things he wouldn’t have been able to do if he wasn’t sober,” she said. “We really had a good time, and you could see it in his face that he was happier.”

After years of struggling with an opioid substance use disorder, Tommy had success in treatment and a year of recovery before he relapsed and died of an overdose June 2 at age 39. He left behind his mother, sister, brother Joey and nephews.

There was nothing in her family’s history that could have predicted Tommy’s disorder, McLaughlin said.

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“We went to church on Sundays, always ate dinner together. Tommy played sports, and he could be introverted and quiet, but a lot of people knew him,” she said. “And that’s the misconception. People don’t understand who this can affect. We need to talk about it more.”

Tommy’s addiction wasn’t something their family tried to hide, McLaughlin said. With final approval from their mother, Lori and Joey McLaughlin included information about Tommy’s struggle in his obituary because they wanted other families to know they were not alone.

McLaughlin said she has learned a lot about addiction throughout the years, getting involved with specialized family support groups and becoming a volunteer with Atlantic City-based Angels In Motion, which reaches out to homeless and addicted populations.

“We miss him every day,” McLaughlin said. “It’s comforting to know that there is support out there, and that our family and friends can remind us of the fun times. I really believe that Tommy is at peace, and that I’ll see him again some day.”

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