This is one in an ongoing New Bedford Light series examining the far-reaching impacts of addiction.
Paula Young always knows when her son is around. She knows it when, sitting in her backyard with her chin lifted, she sees a heart-shaped cloud stretching across the sky. She knows it anytime a fluffy red cardinal lands on the bird feeder in front of her window. She knows it when her son’s cat, now hers, curls up like a bagel on her lap.
To let her son know she is there, too, Young walks to the Pine Grove Cemetery in New Bedford and sits next to his grave. Patiently waiting for other signs.
“This is what I know for a fact people don’t understand,” said Young. “They don’t understand what comes with losing a child.” It’s like a grenade thrown in the room, Young explains, and suddenly you are on the ground picking up the pieces. “Every shattered piece you try to pick up, it’s something pulling you back.”
Young’s son, Andrew J. Ganhao, was 33 years old when he died of fentanyl poisoning. The night before he died, he texted his mother that he was going for a walk in the park of the apartment complex he was living in Annapolis, Maryland. The following morning, a man walking his dog found Ganhao under a gazebo. Next to him was a half-smoked joint that later was discovered to have been laced with a deadly dose of fentanyl.
“My son was given marijuana by someone he knew. He thought that person had got it from the dispensary,” said Young. “Obviously he did not, and now my son is six feet underground.”
Young said her son loved sports more than anything, to the point of buying entire outfits with matching pastel ties he would wear when he coached kids or watched his favorite football team, the Jets. He was the kind of guy who “walked into a room and lit it up,” Young said. And “you knew he loved you” from his sincere, long hugs. The kind of heartwarming hugs you get from your grandparents.
Two years before passing away, Ganhao started Achieve Greatness, a volunteer project dedicated to teaching kids from the inner city one-on-one basketball skills. Young decided to register the nonprofit a year after Ganhao’s death to keep providing kids with training but also to educate them on the dangers of fentanyl in the community.
“Andrew’s legacy is not going to be how he passed away,” said Young. “But how many lives he’s going to save.”
Today, Young’s grief comes and goes like waves of the ocean, she said. One day she feels OK, and the following one, anything can trigger her. A song. A food her son liked to eat. The approaching date of a holiday or the unavoidable anniversary of his death.
Last March marked one year. Since then, Young has become part of a growing online network of grieving parents who lost their kids in the same tragic way. The internet gave them space to gravitate toward each other and share all the feelings “other people wouldn’t understand,” said Young. Most of the time, she doesn’t have to “speak a word to them” to explain how she feels.
She doesn’t need to explain it to Jenn, a mother working in the school system in Texas who lost her son Jacob. To Marla in Ohio, a retired paramedic firefighter who lost her daughter. To Jim, a biologist who founded “Families Against Fentanyl” after the death of his son Thomas. To Trisha in New Hampshire, who lost her son Bryan. Or to Kim in Florida, who lost her son Christopher.
Young and the other parents found a way of turning their tragedies into purposes. Their work of raising awareness in schools within their respective states, engaging with governors and senators, closely monitoring fatalities, and establishing nonprofit organizations has become a mission that keeps them alive.
Like an ongoing battle carrying a message for all the parents around the country. “Don’t say it can’t be your child,” said Young.
“Everything that we are doing … It’s because we are trying to save you. Your child. Because we couldn’t save ours.”
Email Eleonora Bianchi at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: If you or someone you know lost a loved one to addiction, we’d like to tell the story. Send an email to: Tips@newbedfordlight.org.