St. Margaret Mary’s ‘HALOS’ Helps Parents Heal

Story and Photos By Christine Bordelon

Losing a child is difficult for any parent or family. But, for those whose child died from a drug overdose, alcohol or suicide, the loss is even harder. There’s shame and the guilt of constantly asking themselves, “Could I have done more?”

A group has just formed at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Slidell to support parents and others dealing with this specific loss of a loved one. It’s called HALOS: “Healing After Loss to Overdose or Suicide.”

Donna Oster

Parishioner Donna Oster formed this group with Deacon Chris Schneider and spiritual director Ester Agurcia-Smith.

Since 2013, Oster has struggled with her son Adam’s overdose and has openly sought others with whom to share grief. She has gained strength through an informal gathering of individuals who had lost children, Compassionate Friends, and by journaling.

Yet, she yearned for a faith group of individuals, like herself, whose children had lost the battle with drug addiction. The thought materialized at her home parish, St. Margaret Mary, initially seeking guidance from St. Margaret Mary Deacon Louie Bauer, who had established a growing ministry called Substance Addiction Ministry (SAM) in the parish to help those either afflicted with or affected by addiction. 

Oster also talked to a mortician who stated how common it has become to bury those who have died from addiction.

Then, she heard Deacon Schneider speak and knew he was the one to advance her idea. With a law enforcement background, he had familiarity with people on drugs trying to escape reality. 

“I knew I had a place in my heart to reach out to those who are hurting,” he said. “Somehow, some way, these ladies … through different life events are more connected in a deeper manner. As they are talking and pouring out their hearts, there is love occurring and being shared among them.” 

Deacon Schneider describes the group as having three Cs: community, conversation and commitment. “Having someone to walk with” during this tough time, he said. 

So many grieving parents

A retired teacher, Oster has realized she’s not alone in needing to talk to other parents suffering the same grief. She came prepared for the April 8 meeting equipped with prayer cards, books and other helpful material.

“People who have lost a child to cancer or a car wreck, it’s almost a noble death,” said Agurcia-Smith, who lost her son, Jason, almost two years ago from a heart attack at age 34 brought on by a deadly combination of a heart blockage (known as a widowmaker) and drugs. “When you want to talk about a child who died due to overdose, it’s not the same. The feelings are not the same.”

Agurcia-Smith said her son worked at the family business. When he died, “my best friend was gone. It was not just losing my son. We were so much alike, so it was like a double death for me.”

Boo Bordes felt shame.

“I used to feel like I had this big ‘S’ on my chest,” said Bordes, who lost her son three years ago. “It’s not the same. … When they go to rehab, you have so much hope. They come home, and they have so much hope, and they crash again.”

Both expressed how HALOS meetings are “lack of judgment” zones, and, along with Deacon Schneider, know meetings are a work in progress.

“You can talk and say whatever,” Agurcia-Smith said. “We’ve all been in that boat. … It’s all OK. I think it’s to be able to get away from the stigma and for people to know they can talk about it. There’s camaraderie and freedom to talk about it.” 

In addition to meetings, Oster has taken a counselor’s advice, that “you have to talk, and, if you don’t talk, you won’t heal,” and makes personal visits to families not yet ready to discuss their grief publicly. 

She shared an image of blowing up a balloon, and if air is not released, it will explode. 

Keeping the faith

While prayer and maintaining faith might be tough for some after this loss, Bordes sought her Catholic faith and prayed to God for acceptance and peace.

“I don’t think this ever goes away,” she said of the loss of a child. “Part of your heart is gone. … I feel God has a lot of mercy (for her son) and feel like he wouldn’t do anything but hold him in his arms. … If I give him to God, he would take care of him.”

Oster, too, turned toward her Catholic faith in prayer. She called her son “a bruised reed” – from the Old Testament – as he struggled with life’s difficulties, yet called him a “smoldering wick” of love for the Lord in his heart. She finds comfort in having monthly Masses celebrated for Adam.

“I can no longer do anything for my child, but I can say Masses,” she said.

“God is so loving, tender, kind and wonderful, and what he wants for you is so much because he loves you so much,” Agurcia-Smith said.

As they share, support and pray for one another, attendees anticipate healing and peace from HALOS. They hope other Catholic parishes and people of any faith who need this will join them.

“Everybody has their own story,” Bordes said. “Everybody has a cross. We don’t know most of them. … This is my cross.”

HALOS, open to all faiths, meets the first Monday of each month at 7 p.m. The next meeting is May 6. Call (985) 621-7864.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.