Updated: Feb 26
"The last time I saw my son was on Mother's Day in 2018. He died a month later," said mother of five Kristen Grebey. Last week we highlighted a parent-leader and an advocate for her non-binary child. This week for February's Parent Leadership Series we sat down with Grebey, PA Parent and Family Alliance's very own outreach assistant, to hear her heartbreaking story of how she lost her son to a substance use disorder and how she is using her lived experiences to help other families facing similar challenges. She is another example of a parent that did not realize that the work and advocacy they have done and continue to do make them a leader among parents. Grebey may not see the leadership she exemplifies, but we sure do.
In October 2016 Grebey's son's girlfriend was hospitalized for an overdose. She ended up being okay but it was during the stress and scariness of this event that Grebey's son told his mom about his own drug use. "He turned to me and told me that he had done everything but bath salts but tried to reassure me that he had it under control," said Grebey. The following month her son went to court-ordered rehabilitation. "The rehab was really starting to work but his girlfriend's grandmother died and he flew out before rehab was finished for the funeral. They went off the radar after that and didn't resurface until they were homeless. A little bit of time past and they seemed to be off the radar again. Eventually, she moved in with a friend and my son went back to rehab to escape homelessness, and the couple broke up."
She described this second trip to rehab as something that "turned the light back on" over her child's head. "He was doing really well in July 2017. He was out in Utah, had gotten a job and an apartment for himself. He even came out to visit for Thanksgiving and was looking so great," said Grebey. She remembers her husband saying "welcome back, we missed you" to her son that Thanksgiving because it felt like he was finally the son and brother that he had been before his substance use challenges.
Her other children felt like they had their brother back. When asked how their sibling relationship was impacted she said that her other children were scared of her son when he was under the influence of drugs because they didn't know what he would do. "They really did suffer seeing their brother like that. All of my kids got a lot closer during his recovery. He made a point to reach out to and speak to his siblings and build that relationship back up." Today Grebey's kids miss their brother immensely and while she said she is constantly on the lookout for signs that they could be struggling with their own substance abuse challenges she highly doubts it would happen because of how they watched their brother suffer. She told us that her children are so scared and very cautious about becoming addicted to anything.
"He soon met a girl that quickly became his girlfriend. She was heavily into heroin and he became started using again," said Grebey. Grebey saw her son on Mother's Day in 2018 and one month later he died from asphyxiation. "Initially it rocked me to my core. I was numb for a long time then I started to mentally break down," said Grebey. Her therapist recommended EDMR Therapy and it helped Grebey process everything she was going through. "Without that therapy, I would be a shell of a person and would not be here talking to you today," said Grebey.
Burying a child has been the hardest thing Grebey has ever done and says that it is something that no parent should ever have to experience. After working with her therapist to process her own emotions and heartbreak, it invigorated her to share her voice with legislators, families and system providers. "I wanted to help other parents. I wanted to help them understand boundaries and what enabling looks like and how to avoid doing it. I want to give them a chance to not lose their child, as I have."
"By far the hardest part is that you can not fix this challenge for your child. From the time you have babies, you want to take any pain or stress away from them and fix anything that is harming them. With this, you just can't. What is more important than trying to solve all of their problems is to set boundaries and make sure you are not enabling them," said Grebey. "I took his calls. I explained to him rationally and calmly why he couldn't move back in with me and my other children because I could not risk losing custody of them. I calmly explained things to him and kept those boundaries. I don't think he would have truly believed I was always there and a symbol of strength for him if I didn't stick by my word. I would have been too easy of a target if I was always letting him get away with things."
The number one thing she tells parents who are going through similar things is to seek help for yourself. She urges people to seek therapy and support groups as soon as possible. Finding someone who is educated on the topic and can help you get your footing while trying to figure out how to help your child is essential. She personally found a support group as soon as she learned about her son's challenges and she found that people that have actually lived through this challenge are so much less judgemental than people who have not.
In April Grebey became an outreach assistant with PA Parent and Family Alliance. As an outreach assistant, she works with families in Lackawanna County to help them find and connect with services that are useful for their family's needs. She also works with system providers to ensure their agencies and programs are designed to fully embrace family voice at all levels of planning and service delivery. Grebey sits on several regional stakeholder councils representing the families in her community.
As you will see all month the biggest impact that a leader can make is to share their story to inspire others. February marks a time where we can take a second to look at and celebrate parents who have become leaders. Grebey is an example of how one mother can take a traumatic and heartbreaking event and use it as a beacon of light and guidance for others. She has worked to show parents experiencing similar circumstances that they are not responsible for the substance use challenges their child is facing and has worked to share ideas on how to be there for their child.
To this day Grebey has people come up to her and say how they remember her son as a kind person who would give anybody the shirt off of his back if they needed it. While his life was cut short, it was a life full of kindness and love and that is exactly how Grebey remembers her son.