Grief, addiction and losing my sister.

This is my sister Colleen.

She passed away on September 24, 2016.  This coming Sunday will mark 1-year.

One terribly agonizing year of sadness, heartache, loss, grief, pain, anger, forgiveness, acceptance, and learning to live a “new normal” without her here.

She was only 50.  She died of an accidental fentanyl overdose.

It’s actually still hard for me to process that she’s gone. It is also difficult for me to put into words the pain and grief I feel when I allow myself to go there.

Colleen didn’t want to live the life of an addict.  She hated it.  But she had a disease, a terrible addiction that started with prescription pain pills.

She wanted so desperately to be healthy, and she was for almost 2 years.  For TWO years we got her back and that was an amazingly wonderful gift, something I will forever be grateful for.  Not everyone can say that, especially when it comes to addiction.

Sadly, Colleen relapsed 4 days before she could celebrate her 2-year sobriety.

While at her wake, my Mom, my sister Donna and I were kneeling together at her casket. We were talking to Colleen, touching her head, giving her kisses, adjusting her jewelry when we noticed one of the hand-stamped bracelets I had made for her celebrating her 1-year sobriety.  The realization that the date of her wake was exactly 2 years to the day of her wake was surreal.

The irony.

I feel honored that I was able to write my sisters Eulogy.  Who knew I had the strength to do that??  Certainly not me, but I wanted to honor my sister Colleen and through her spirit, in a church filled with family and friends, with my beautiful sister Donna by my side, I was able to read what I wrote.

{Here is what I read at her funeral, September 29, 2016}

Come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest.  Matthew 11:28

At 7 weeks old, on January 26, 1966, our loving parents joyfully brought Colleen Marie home to her 3-year old big sister Donna.  My parents, Dave and Judy decided that after desperately trying to conceive, followed by 2 miscarriages, adoption was what God had planned for their family.  Everyone excitedly embraced this new little girl as a natural extension of the family.  She was loved and adored by everyone and Donna just loved “her” new baby girl “Cokey”, as she fondly referred to her.  Finally, after years of heartache, longing, and praying for another baby, my parent’s dreams finally came true their family was complete.  From the moment that little girl was placed in their arms, Colleen was undoubtedly their daughter.
Ironically, I was born 2 years later…..go figure.


Growing up, I remember secretly admiring the fact that Colleen was actually “hand-picked” by our parents.  To me, that sounded pretty darn special.

Colleen was a kind, happy little girl who always smiled.  She also had an innate independent side with a tendency to wander and explore.  So much so in fact, that our parents eventually had to pin a sign on Colleens back during summers at our campground with her name and campsite number, just in case she went off wandering.  Cokey the explorer.

Clearly, she had an undeniably strong will and spirit.  But she also had a beautiful, sweet smile and bright, sparkling green eyes, which made her tough demure, soften just a bit.
Cokey loved the color purple.  Thank you all for wearing it in honor of her life.
If you know Colleen, you may recall her stubborn/feisty side.  “Camp Director” as our family would later refer to it with a roll of the eyes.  It was basically Colleen taking charge of any situation.  Annoying sometimes, but also a welcomed relief at times, doing all that she could to help.  Today would have been one of them.
I admired this strong trait of my sisters and always wished I could have just a little bit more of Cokey’s spunk and sass.  She was small, but boy she was brazen.  Colleen could basically talk or negotiate her way through any situation.  And she would fight for anyone she thought was being mistreated, that was definitely when you wanted Cokey on your side.
Colleen had her own agenda and God help anyone who got in her way.   She had a place for everything.  Her home was always tidy and squeaky clean.  Put a glass down, it was washed and put away before you could take another sip.
Colleen was classy.  She always looked polished and put together.  She had a champagne appetite for the finer things.  She loved stylish clothing, makeup, jewelry, lipstick…like so much lipstick! And of course her fondness for purses.  She even kept her purse exceptionally neat and organized.  Who does that??  Well actually, many of Colleens traits, consequently are very much like our Mom, I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.
Even as a child, Cokey was quite outspoken and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.   She wanted to be first in line, first AND leader of the annual pot and pan parade at our campground, and she somehow always got to be the Teacher when the three of us girls would play school on Saturday mornings.  Oh, lest we forget that she was always the Priest when serving the Necco wafer bodies of Christ.
I think her desire to be first may have been altered a bit when while being the Bus driver of our kitchen chairs school bus, she thought that using a real key in the electrical outlet to “start the bus” was a good idea.
Cokey was one of my best friends for a very long time.  It was the three of us, Donna, Cokey and Shelly.  We played Barbies, made houses out of cardboard boxes and spent so much time riding our bikes and running around outdoors with our neighborhood friends.  We had a wonderful childhood and an unconditional love from our parents.  I can’t tell you how many times we heard our Dad tell each one of us that we were beautiful, or that he was so proud of us, we always knew we were adored.  He taught us our prayers and often times would kneel at the side of our beds with us to pray and we loved it when he gave us triple piggyback rides.  Our Dad was made to be the father of daughters.  He’s a natural –  sentimental, gentle, loving and absolutely loved singing along with us on long road trips, often times changing the lyrics to make us laugh.  This is something he actually still does.    Our Mom was our confidant, especially with girly things, the bids and the bees, boyfriend stuff and she was the one we would go to if we were hurt, or needed a shoulder to cry on. Raising daughters, especially during those rough teenage years sure isn’t easy, thank you for everything, Mom and Dad.  I’m sure Cokey would agree, she loved you both.
Our home was a safe, happy and loving one.  Cokey and I shared a bedroom for many years and for a while even shared the same bed.  I was the baby of the family and if I’m being completely honest, a scaredy-cat.  Cokey was the bravest kid I knew and took care of me when she knew I was scared.  I can’t tell you how many times she walked me, hand in hand, into our parent’s bedroom after a nightmare, or went bum to bum in bed with me just so I could feel her next to me.  She made me feel safe and loved.
Colleen loved animals.  As a young girl, she had a mad passion for horses.  Consequently, that passion trickled down to her daughter Brittany, who is also a huge animal lover and spent so much of her life at the barn with her beloved horses.  Colleen was a natural with animals, babies and with people, especially ones who needed help.  She always thought she could fix whoever needed fixing.  She was strong but had a soft, warm heart. In her early teens, Colleen volunteered at Tewksbury State Hospital.  One of her roles was to assist during Sunday mass, helping wheel patients to the service.  She would get them settled then follow behind the priest during communion wiping the mouths of those patients who couldn’t do it for themselves.  Talk about compassion.
 Cokey was a natural with kids.  She loved holding babies, pushing strollers and ever since I can remember, she would say that she wanted to be a Mom someday.
Her dream became a joyous reality when her son Eric was born in 1987 and our sister Cokey took on the role as Mom.  Six years later, in 1993, she was blessed with her second child, Brittany Marie.  Being a mother was Colleen’s greatest calling.  She made sure her kids had everything they needed.  She was dedicated, spending countless hours sitting on those cold bleacher seats cheering on Eric while he played hockey and driving hundreds of miles to a horse show so that Brittany could compete.
Colleen beamed with pride when talking about her kids and she truly loved them beyond words.  If you know Eric and Brittany, you can certainly attest that they are pretty amazing.
She made certain, even throughout the years of being a single parent that her kids had everything they needed and more. The over the top birthday parties with ponies, Barney, bouncy houses, etc., Colleen certainly knew how to throw one heck of a party.  And you wouldn’t believe how quickly Cokey could get a party started at our house when our parents would leave for the weekend.
Cokey loved her friends.  She was loyal and true.  Her best friend Heather, who has been her friend since high school and is here today, has stood right beside her, supporting and loving her through thick and thin.  Thank you, Heather.
I know that Colleen would have been so overwhelmed with all of the love and support and by having all of you here today and the past few days.  Thank you all for that.
Yes, it’s true Colleen had her own personal struggles, as we all do.  She also battled her additions for many years leading to some strained relationships, heartache and some clouded decisions.  Almost 2 years ago came the darkest days for Colleen. She was basically homeless and had hit rock bottom.   She had no other choice but to start on her road to recovery.  She was scared, we were all so scared.  For SO long our family had been dreading the thought that someday we would get a call that she was gone.  But instead, Colleen dug down deep and with her strong will, she pushed forward.  She was doing the hard work.  She spent time in rehab, a sober living home and attended daily AA meetings. She kept her AA book by her bed and started praying.   Slowly and surely she started to reemerge and for the first time in many, many years WE had hope and Colleen had hope.
Cokey looked healthy and she started to smile again.  And her laugh, she had a great laugh.  We actually felt like we had our Colleen back after so, so long.  She seemed to have felt good about herself, made new friends and reconnected with people.  She spent so much time with our Mom and Dad.  They were wonderful, so loving, forgiving, accepting and helpful in every way to get Colleen back on her feet again.  It was their greatest wish.  They were her rock during such a difficult time and I know that she appreciated it.  My Dad made sure to pick Cokey up every Monday while she was living at the sober house to take her out to dinner at Stello’s in Billerica so they could talk.  Funny, after several dinners, my Dad realized that one of the waitresses actually thought they were a couple.  Wow! kudos Dad.
Last year, our family was fortunate enough to have spent lots of memorable days together with Colleen.  She was fully present and involved with our family.  We were blessed to have spent last Christmas eve together in our matching Dr. Suess pjs.  I was thrilled that my kids finally got to meet the real Auntie Cokey and they loved her.  The memory of watching Cokey laugh, swim and play in the ocean with my kids is one that really warms my heart and makes me smile.  Thank you for that memory sister.
Last October, Colleen was proudly awarded her 1-year sobriety medallion in front of family and friends.  My mom got up and spoke and presented this special award to her.  Here Colleen stood, so proud and so courageous after all of the years being alone in such a deep, dark, place. She beamed with pride.
So here we are today.  Our fears became a reality early Saturday morning when we got the terrible news that you were gone.  Shock, disbelief, and sorrow overwhelmed us all.  Why??  I’m not sure we will ever understand, but our faith teaches us that God has a plan for each and every one of us.  Maybe his plan included a compassionate, feisty, 5 foot Camp Director to be an Angel and you were perfect for the job.  Who knows?!?
What we do know Coke is that we are SO incredibly proud of you.  We’ve seen how far you’ve come and know that your journey was not an easy one.  How hard you worked each and every day, how much you loved us, your family, your friends and especially your two beautiful children.  Today, you are still the bravest person I know my dear sister and I/we are beyond blessed to have had you in our lives.
I shared this song with you during some of your difficult days because it reminded me of you.  You really loved it so I’ll share it with you.  To quote Katy Perry:
You held me down, but I got up
Get ready ’cause I had enough
I see it all, I see it now
I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter
Dancing through the fire
‘Cause I am a champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar
And we did Coke.  We heard you.
So rest in peace sweet sister and know that this isn’t goodbye.  It’s just c-ya.
You are loved, you will never be forgotten and we will miss you every single day.
Godspeed sister.

( Colleen and I in August of 2015 )

So this Sunday marks 1-year since Colleen left this earth.  We are having a mass in honor of her and I’ve noticed that in preparation, I’ve experienced a lot of emotions I thought wouldn’t surface again.  I suppose it’s that unexpected wave of grief that comes when you least expect it.

Some people say “she’s in a better place” and I wholeheartedly believe that she is at peace and I am happy that she isn’t suffering each and every day like I believe she was for so long. However, it doesn’t mean I don’t want her back here with us.  I want her with our family, our parents. I want her to be able to be here when her two children get married and start a family.  I want her to become Grandmother someday, I know she would have loved that.  I just want her “in our place”.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible and we must go on. We must carry this burden of grief. We must always remember her, talk to her, talk about her, share stories, tears and laughter. We must always carry her in our hearts.

Grief is personal.  What works for one doesn’t mean it will for another.  Throughout this past year, I’ve found that just talking to someone I love and sharing how I feel is so helpful.  Crying happens.  Sometimes at the weirdest times, but regardless, it’s cleansing.  Writing my feelings down also helps.  Yoga has been a wonderful outlet, and less than a month after Colleen passed I took a part-time dog walking job.  Who knew that walking outdoors during the unpredictable 4-season weather of New England would be therapeutic?!? Trust me, the cute furry friends, wet noses, and serenity of nature have been a wonderful, healing gift.  I’m no grief expert, nor do I want to be.  I’m simply sharing my experience and my journey with you.

I’ve also been blessed to have received many signs that I believe are from my sister while out on my walks. Thanks, Coke.

Maybe you can relate to what I’m sharing because you know someone who is suffering from addiction.  Maybe you don’t, but you can relate to the agonizing feelings of grief.  Maybe something resonates with you, maybe not.  Nonetheless, I wanted to share.

My sister’s addiction does not define who she was.  She was a good, kind soul. She was a strong and courageous woman. She was a proud and loving mother. She was a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend.  She was my big sister and I will never forget her.

She will forever be loved and missed by so many who loved her.

So how do we move on?  We didn’t sign up to be a part of this overdose family.  This horrific, terrible group. No one does.  No one ever would.  My heart aches for anyone who is suffering.  For all who are suffering in this world.  For anyone who has lost a loved one and understands all too well the shitty, gut-wrenching pain of grief.

 You should know that there is help available.  No one should go through this pain alone.  Last week I attended my first sibling loss group. I was a bit apprehensive but with the “constant loving reminders” from my Mom, who along with my Dad have found comfort in the groups, meetings, and vigils they’ve attended over the past year, I agreed to go.  I’m happy that I did.  Everyone in this group has lost a sibling to addiction, many could relate that we lost them way before the overdose.  We could all relate to each other,  similar stories, feelings, lots of guilt, and the impact that addiction has on a family.  So many heartbreaking stories, yet it was wonderful to feel safe and connect with people who “get it”.  Strangers who made me feel so welcomed and at ease allowing me to open up, be completely honest and express my thoughts and feelings; the good, the bad and the ugly crying without any judgment.

The opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts alone in 2016 were a staggering 2,107. I pray that something will change soon, so many deaths and so many young people are gone.

Keeping quiet isn’t going to help, we need to talk about it, share our stories, share our loved ones stories, educate our children.  We need to advocate for the ones we have lost, in the hopes of ever seeing the change we need.  We need to be their voices.

In closing, I want to acknowledge two other people our family lost.  My brother in law John, 52 (Colleen’s husband), who passed in March of 2015, and my sweet cousin Michael, 38 who passed in February 2016.  You are both missed and will never be forgotten.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.



16 thoughts on “Grief, addiction and losing my sister.

    1. Thank you Ellen. I hope more people share their stories in the hopes of helping those who are suffering from addiction as well as those who are suffering the lose of a loved one.

  1. What a beautiful eulogy.
    My sympathy to you and your family as you near her Anniversary.
    Hopefully others reading this will be inspired by her life.
    She was truly loved!

  2. Michelle, what a tribute to not only Colleen but to her children, your Mom & Dad and Donna – All of you have always held a special place in my heart ❤️ I think of you all so often and will always cherish the millions of memories of being more like family than Foster Road neighbors Love you, Barbara xoxo

  3. Very touching, heartfelt, sad, loving. Maybe our loved ones are all together in Heaven. r.i.p. my son: Robert Hale Tavares. 8/14/91 – 2/12/17.

  4. Shelly that was absolutely beautiful and heartbreaking! We have lost touch for many years but through FB our families have reconnected! I have always love you and your family so much. So many GREAT memories. Please know how sorry I am for all you’ve been through. Please give your Mom and Dad a huge hug from me. Everyone grows and moves on but our childhood is the roots of our being. And you and your family we’re so much a part of mine. Love you all. Chris Hirshaka Chrissy!

  5. What a beautiful tribute to your precious sister. My sincere sympathy to your whole family. May she rest gently in the arms of HER guardian angel. Peace.

  6. How beautiful, your ability to share so much love and pain that you and your family have gone through is amazing Shelly. I have such fond memories of Colleen, you and your whole family. ❤️ My prayers and love are with you all as the anniversary approaches. God Bless Collleen, may she Rest In Peace. Love from my heart, Eleanor

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