A study of loss — and resilience: “Those Left Behind” expands on award-winning Gazette series

  • Cara Moser, in front, finds some comfort in support meetings following the death of her daughter Eliza. Behind Moser is her daughter Kate Harper; at right is her boyfriend, Jeff Shotland. STAFF Photos by Carol Lollis

  • Cara Moser shows a picture of herself with her daughter Eliza, who died of an opioid overdose in 2018. STAFF Photo by Carol Lollis

  • Laurie Loisel, who won an award for a series of articles she wrote for the Gazette in 2019 on the opioid crisis, has expanded the work in a new book, “Those Left Behind.” STAFF Photo by Carol Lollis

  • Henry Brown and Debra McNeice still mourn the loss of their son, Patrick, to opioids, but they also have found ways to continue enjoying life.

  • In her book, Loisel offers a fuller portrait of Dr. Ruth Potee, who oversees addiction services in Franklin and Hampden counties. STAFF Photo by Carol Lollis

  • Jim, Chantel and Evelyn Ouimette visit a memorial on Mount Tom to Mitch Ouimette, Jim and Evelyn’s son and Chantel’s brother, who died of an opioid overdose in 2017. STAFF Photo by Carol Lollis

  • “Those Left Behind” by Laurie Loisel is an expansion of a series of award-winning article Loisel wrote for the Gazette in 2019.

Staff Writer
Published: 6/24/2021 3:49:30 PM

It was one of the most difficult assignments she’d ever had as a writer. But for Laurie Loisel, it was also a story that needed to be told.

Loisel, a former editor and reporter for the Gazette, wrote a series of articles for the paper in the fall of 2019 on how the opioid crisis has devastated families in the region and taxed the strength of frontline workers — substance abuse counselors, recovery specialists, police — who must deal with the fallout.

Called “Those Left Behind,” the articles, which included photographs by Gazette photo editor Carol Lollis, won a 2020 award for public service journalism from The New England Newspaper & Press Association (NENPA).

Now Loisel, who wrote the Gazette series in her capacity as the director of outreach and education for the office of Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan — a connection that was made clear to readers — has expanded on those articles with her new book, “Those Left Behind,” by Gallery of Readers Press in Northampton.

She’ll read from the book and be part of a panel discussion on the opioid problem on Saturday, June 26 at 4 p.m. at the Northampton Recovery Center. The event, sponsored by Gallery of Readers Press, the Recovery Center, and Hampshire HOPE, will be streamed on Zoom, although an audience of special guests will also attend the reading in person.

A book takes shape

In a recent phone call, Loisel said she imagined when she was writing the initial series of articles that the subject could well lend itself to a book, given the depth and emotional power of the material. She interviewed several families who had lost teenage or young adult sons or daughters to opioid overdoses, leaving family and friends heartbroken, grasping for answers on what they might have done differently to try and save their loved ones.

But it was a call from Carol Edelstein, co-founder of Gallery of Readers Press, in February 2020 that got the project moving, said Loisel. “Carol reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in working on a book with her, and we talked about how we could do that, how we might reorganize the material and expand on the articles.”

The pandemic’s arrival in mid-March upended some of those initial plans, Loisel noted, but in the summer of 2020 it also provided a bit of a silver lining, as her hours at the DA’s office were reduced for a time, allowing her to do additional interviews with many of the people she’d initially spoken to.

One of her goals was to talk again with parents, months after she’d initially met them, to see how they were coping with the loss of their child. She also wanted to offer fuller portraits of some of those parents, as well as some of the siblings of the overdose victims, than she was able to fashion in the Gazette articles.

“The pain doesn’t go away when someone close to you dies, especially someone so young,” Loisel says. “But I was also struck by the resilience the people I spoke to have shown, and the way they offer their experience to try to help others who are dealing with the same problem.”

She spent time, for instance, with Henry Brown and Debra McNeice of Leeds, whose son, Patrick Brown, died of an opioid overdose in 2016 at age 28. The couple still tear up talking about their son, but they also can now enjoy time together on bike rides, dancing and other activities, and they’ve volunteered with local health agencies to help families through similar crises.

In her book, Loisel has also constructed a deeper portrait of a key source for her Gazette articles, Dr. Ruth Potee, a specialist who oversees a range of addiction and recovery services in Franklin and Hampden counties. “Those Left Behind” reveals that Potee, who grew up in Petersham, worked in politics when she was first out of college but then went to medical school after her brother Charlie died of cancer in 1991 when he was just 26.

“People worked really hard to save his life, and I wanted to help people like that,” Potee says in the book.

Original photographs

“Those Left Behind” includes some of the original photographs taken by Carol Lollis for the Gazette series as well new images, such as a picture Lollis took last summer when she joined friends and family of the late Mitch Ouimette for a hike to a rock outcropping on Mount Tom in Easthampton. The rock has a painted memorial honoring Ouimette, made by friends after the teen died in 2017 at age 19.

Lollis had been the original inspiration for the Gazette opioid series, as she’d been struck by how many people she talked to had lost a friend, family member or acquaintance from substance abuse. Trying to figure out how the Gazette could respond, she’d approached Loisel about writing the series, as the two had worked together on in-depth stories about social issues when Loisel was still at the newspaper.

Loisel says she also enlisted another old Gazette colleague, former features writer Suzanne Wilson, to edit her book. Both Wilson and Carol Edelstein, she says, “did a great job in helping me shape the new material.” And Loisel writes in an afterword that, given the difficulty of the topic, it was nice not to be working alone: “It’s a place that is much better to be in with a friend.”

It’s Loisel’s second book based on a special series of articles she wrote for the Gazette. In 2014, she spent time with an elderly friend, Lee Hawkins, age 90, who decided to end her life by going without food or water. In 2019, Loisel published “On Their Own Terms,” a book that revisited Hawkins’ death and also examined the suicide of Loisel’s 83-year-old father in 2012 and her effort to cope with his death.

She sees her new book as a public service, given that opioid addiction remains a big problem, one that appears to have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The isolation many people have experienced, she notes, has meant people struggling with addiction have in many cases been cut off from treatment, leading to renewed substance abuse.

Addiction “is not going away,” Loisel said. “So I like to think that the more information we can put out about the problem, the more we can understand how this affects people, the more we can talk about the options we have for fighting it, the better we’ll be.”

To take part in the online reading June 26, visit galleryofreaders.org and click on the link for “Readings.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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