The ones they leave behind

Grandparents raise grandkids

Tribune Chronicle / Renee Fox
Jennifer Burr said she wants to to see an end to the Riverview Motel on Parkman Road in Warren, where her daughter, Emily R. Burr, in photo at right, died of a suspected drug overdose in August. She was laid to rest during the solar eclipse on Aug. 21. Emily Burr’s daughter, now 6, appears in the smaller photograph with Emily in photo at left.

Tribune Chronicle / Renee Fox Jennifer Burr said she wants to to see an end to the Riverview Motel on Parkman Road in Warren, where her daughter, Emily R. Burr, in photo at right, died of a suspected drug overdose in August. She was laid to rest during the solar eclipse on Aug. 21. Emily Burr’s daughter, now 6, appears in the smaller photograph with Emily in photo at left.

WARREN — With a record number of people lost to accidental drug overdoses in Trumbull County last year and so many others unable to parent because they are using drugs or locked up for addiction-related crime, more and more families are raising children in a non-traditional way.

Each family reeling from the impact of addiction to opioid-based drugs has to find a unique way to function and cope. In most families, that means grandparents are playing roles they may have been asked to play in the past on occasion, but never with such frequency.

No one situation is the same.

Some who have lost a child find themselves in courtrooms fighting for the right to see their grandchild, others are raising the kids full time and many must work together with the child’s other parent or family members to provide a loving, safe and secure home.

Shared parenting

When Jami Jones-Palm learned she was going to be a grandmother five years ago, she knew she had to make a change. Addiction had penetrated many levels of her life and she knew her son and the mother of her soon-to-be born granddaughter weren’t in the position to care for a baby born addicted to opioids, she said.

“I knew I couldn’t use drugs as a grandmother. I put it down and never did it again. I said to myself, ‘This isn’t what I want to be doing anymore,’ and that was that,” Jones-Palm said. “Emma is my pride and joy.”

Jones-Palm said Emma’s mom lives in the area, but doesn’t really keep in touch and her son is locked up in the Portage County Jail.

Now Emma has two homes — one with Jones-Palm and another with her maternal grandparents. Two of her three half siblings also live with her maternal grandparents, so Emma is able to bond with them.

“I have a good relationship with her other grandparents, we are very close. I promised her grandmother she would never have to do this by herself. This arrangement gives Emma a lot of support and love and keeps her connected to both sides of her family,” Jones-Palm said.

And while the families have found a rhythm in their lives, the beginning of Emma’s life wasn’t easy, she said.

“Now, she is perfectly healthy and a very smart girl. We were lucky, very blessed. Because when she was born, she had to stay in the hospital for the first four weeks of her life,” Jones-Palm said.

And when she came home from the hospital, she was on opioid-withdrawal medications for another three or four weeks.

“This was new to me, I was not familiar at all with what happens to babies when they detox,” Jones-Palm said.

Emma suffered through tremors. Opioid withdrawal symptoms in babies include trouble sleeping and fussiness and is experienced by infants who were exposed to opioids in the womb.

Emma’s father was in jail when his daughter was born, but when he got out he came around to see the little girl often — until he fell off the wagon again.

“It’s a vicious cycle. But the thing is, you are never a lost cause. No matter what anyone tells you, everybody is worth fighting for, no matter how bad their life has been and what mistakes you’ve made, the people you’ve hurt. I hope anyone who is addicted now doesn’t wait until they are grandparents to get the help they need because a lot of them have children now they need to be there for. And with the types of drugs out there now, the gamble is too big, you probably won’t make it that long if you don’t stop now.”

Dealing with the loss

When Terri’s 27-year-old daughter Corey died in April from a suspected accidental overdose, she left behind two young people — her son and Abigail, her 13-year-old sister.

Terri, of Niles, asked the Tribune Chronicle to identify members of her family by first name only.

“She was a good mom when she was able to be. Elijah never wanted for anything, he had diapers, wipes, formula. She didn’t neglect him because she was an addict. She said she would stay clean for him, but she came to realize she was the only one who could keep herself clean and the disease won,” Terri said.

Terri helps Elijah’s dad by watching the 3-year-old while he works.

Corey loved to read, had good grades in school and had a stable life free of drugs, Terri said. But in her teens, Corey started experimenting until her drug use escalated to heroin.

Tears poured down her sister Abigial’s face when she remembered her older sister, who helped deliver her.

When Corey’s problems first developed, Abigail was too young to know what was going on.

“I though she was sick,” she said, crying. “And now she isn’t there anymore. That’s the hard part, I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it. She just isn’t there. I loved everything about her.”

“See, this is what people don’t see, what they don’t think of. The innocent people left behind,” Terri said.

Elijah is too young to understand what happened to his mother, Terri said. But Abigail isn’t.

“I hate drugs. I hate them, all they are good for is hurting people,” Abigail said.

Having Elijah around helps with the loss of Corey, “He keeps her spirit alive,” Terri said.

But it is hard when he finds something of his mother’s.

“It all starts coming back,” Terri said. “We aren’t sad, by any means to have him with us, he is a part of her. But it is also sad that he is there with us, without her. This isn’t the way it was supposed to be.”

Left in the dark

For some grandparents, losing their child means losing their connection to their grandchildren.

Marie Foos-Andrews of Howland hasn’t seen her grandchild since before her son Kyle Gantz died at 28 in 2016 from an accidental overdose on carfentanil — a synthetic opioid produced in laboratories that is typically used to sedate large animals like elephants.

The girl, 9, made something for her father to be buried with and that is the last contact she had with her, she said.

Jennifer Burr of Cortland lost her daughter Emily Burr, 25, in August from a suspected accidental drug overdose at Riverview Motel.

While others were dazzled by the partial solar eclipse Aug. 21, Burr was at Emily’s funeral.

Even though Burr has a custody agreement to see Emily’s daughter, 6, every other weekend, the girl’s father hasn’t honored it. But for the first part of the girl’s life, the baby was in her care because Emily and the girl’s father were using drugs, Burr said.

“I love my grandbaby. She was my life, she still is my life. I’ll never stop fighting for her,” Burr said.

It was difficult to become the caretaker of a baby in 2011 after raising her own children, but it was a joy too, Burr said.

Now, without contact with the girl, “It feels like I lost two people,” Burr said.

Foos-Andrews said it pains her not to have contact with her granddaughter because she and her son were close and she knows he wanted to get clean to be there for her.

“I understand though, her mom is trying to protect her. But on the other hand, he’s been gone for a year and I still haven’t seen her,” Foos-Andrews said. “The one thing he wanted most was to get clean so he could see his daughter again. He is gone, but I’m still here.”