On Sept. 5, community residents, Bayonne officials, religious leaders, and those affected by addiction personally or through loved ones gathered at city hall to mourn the loss of Christina Marie Kirsch, a 28-year-old Bayonne resident who died due to an accidental opioid overdose on March 8, 2016.
The friends and families of others who had lost their lives to addiction joined the gathering to mourn their loved ones.
“Addiction is a disease,” Franca Kirsch, Christina’s mother, said. “It can affect people you love, whether it’s a sibling, a child, or a parent. Whoever it may be, it has to be understood that it affects everybody. It affects all lives. We have to eliminate every stigma associated with addiction.”
Kirsch was one of 2,221 victims who had a drug-related death in New Jersey in 2016, and one of 127 victims in Hudson County that year.
Each year, drug-related deaths attributed to opioids have been reaching record-breaking numbers, since reliable data first became available.
Legislators, law enforcement agencies, and researchers understand that, for many, opioid addiction starts with a doctor’s prescription.
“The opioid addiction problem in our country is at the point where it’s growing like cancer,” Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis said. “There is not one family I know of that hasn’t been hurt by it at some point across the line. I want to be clear, anyone can walk into my office or any council member’s office at any time. We will do anything and everything we can to help, whether it’s finding a rehab or anything else. We will find a path, and walk them through it.”
The over-prescription of opioid painkillers has overlapped in recent years with a growing trend in which illicit drugs are being laced with fentanyl, an extremely powerful synthetic opioid exponentially more potent than heroin.
During that time, New Jersey-based drug deaths and incidents in which heroin and fentanyl were involved have skyrocketed. The heroin overdose rate in New Jersey is triple the national average.
Each of the thousands of fatal overdoses in New Jersey every year represents an exponentially greater number of friends and family traumatized by the loss of a loved one.
As the opioid epidemic grows, mental health and substance abuse advocates, law enforcement agencies, and legislators have adopted policies and programs aimed at prevention and damage control.
Bayonne Police Chief Robert Geisler said that officers in the city attempt to connect anyone involved in a narcotics related incident with recovery resources. The department is one of several with a prescription drop box, which is in the lobby of the department’s headquarters.
‘Her kindness helped others’
Christina Marie Kirsch had high aspirations on an academic and personal level.
She was a lifelong Bayonne resident, and a First Honors student at St. Vincent DePaul Catholic School.
She received her high school diploma at Holy Family Academy, where she was class president, on the student council, and had a consistent 4.0 GPA.
She graduated magna cum laude from Pace University in New York City in 2009, with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology.
“Christina loved everyone and never judged,” Kirsch said. “She cared for everyone and always put her needs last. She had an infectious smile, with an amazing personality. She had a love for nature, and her kindness helped others, and to bring life through her words and actions. She was bold, courageous, and fearless. She stood for justice, to speak for those who could not speak for themselves and defend those who could not defend themselves.”
A place to share the burden
Christina’s family is one of many who said they felt stigma and a sense of shame from unaffected peers following the loss of Christina.
“My sister Aurora and I sought to build a space in the community where those grieving after the loss of a loved one to drug addiction could find support,” Kirsch said.
They became founding members of a bereavement group that was originally called A Healing Heart. Later it merged with a national organization called GRASP (Grief Recovery Assistance after a Substance Passing).
Now, members coordinate monthly meetings and other events throughout the year for GRASP’s Hudson County chapter, which meets on the third Sunday of each month at St. Vincent De Paul Church, 979 Avenue C in Bayonne from 1-3 p.m.
The meetings are open to all those affected by the loss of a loved one to addiction who needs a space where they can share their experiences with people who can empathize on a personal level. The Bayonne group is the only GRASP chapter in Hudson County.
Kirsch said that her mission is to eliminate the shame and stigma associated with substance-related deaths, and provide a a space for like-minded peers to heal in a place of solace.
Similar groups exist for people grieving for those who died in other tragic circumstances. GRASP was founded because there were few groups to support those grieving in the wake of tragedies caused by addiction or misuse of drugs.
Kirsch urges anyone experiencing grief to seek recovery from their loss with other members of the Hudson County community.
For more information on GRASP, contact Franca Kirsch at 201-577-8264 or Aurora Chiarella at 917-696-7935.