Overdose victims remembered at Marlborough parish vigil

MARLBOROUGH -- A talented artist and drummer. A "funny, caring, and thoughtful" son and brother. A "light" in the lives of her family.

These are only three of the tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents who have died from drug overdoses since 2015, when Marlborough resident Kathy Leonard began holding annual vigils in their memory on Aug. 31, International Overdose Awareness Day.

To some, they are mere statistics. To those who crowded inside Marlborough's Immaculate Conception Church for this year's vigil, they are much more. Family members brought photographs of loved ones they lost and placed them on a table in front of the altar, illuminated by tea candles.

"These people are good people," Leonard said. "They're our sons and daughters, husbands and wives... Addiction knows no boundaries. They're our grandchildren, grandparents, cousins."

Leonard's son Jonathan died of a drug overdose eight days before Christmas 2014. He was 26 years old. Jonathan was an artist and drummer who played in many local bands since high school.

"The pain of that grief is not any less," she said. "You learn how to live with it, but you don't ever get over it."

Leonard holds the vigils to process the loss of her son while helping other struggling families. Usually, the vigils take place outdoors in front of the Marlborough Public Library. On the hill overlooking the center of town, Leonard and her volunteers would place as many flags as there were overdose deaths in Massachusetts the previous year. In 2016, they placed 1,256 flags. Last year, they placed 2,290.

"I don't know what to say about that," she told the families gathered inside the church. "Every year, I hope I put fewer flags out there."

Due to a family emergency, Leonard was prepared to cancel this year's vigil. Then, she got an email from Father Steven Clemence of Immaculate Conception Parish. He said he would open the church for the vigil.

"It was amazing because it wouldn't have happened if [the parish] didn't help me," Leonard said, calling Father Clemence "a godsend."

Father Clemence led the families in prayer and offered remarks emphasizing the importance of sharing grief. He told them that it is okay to cry, because it represents the love they have for those they lost.

"No matter how long we have lost our loved one," he said, "we'll always miss them. But in life, it's almost like we have other parents. It's almost like we have other children. We have other people around us who need our love, who are also around to love us."

Father Clemence gave special consolation to a family that lost its matriarch two days before the vigil. Elizabeth Mary Desjardins died of a drug overdose on Aug. 29 at the age of 46.

"She was a bold one," her daughter Amanda said. "She was ambitious, and she never gave up. She was a fighter. Everyone who met her fell in love with her. She was light."

Mary's boyfriend, Alex, called her "a ray of sunshine, an absolute all-star and a great cook."

Alex carried a poster of Mary designed by her sister Nicole. It was decorated with purple flowers -- her favorite color -- and a purple ribbon representing overdose awareness. Mary's brother-in-law Mynor, her eight-year-old niece Francisca, and her nephew Mynor Jr., who turned 11 two days before her death, were also in attendance.

"Thank you for doing this," Nicole told Father Clemence. "I didn't think this was ever going to happen."

Mary went to every vigil since 2015, to honor family members that she lost to drug overdoses.

"We live for her now," Amanda said. "We have to keep going. It's what she would have wanted."

Father Clemence told all of the families that their losses were also his.

"Just your very presence here speaks volumes," he said. "That's why we gather together. To honor our loved ones and support each other, because we're never alone."

Both Leonard and Father Clemence encouraged those at the vigil to remember that "there is still hope" for those who are currently struggling with substance abuse.

"One of the most important things that we need to let people know is that substance abuse does not have to end in death," Leonard said. "Recovery is possible."

Through tears, Erin Holmes read poetry in memory of her son Matthew, who died of an overdose in 2016 at the age of 22. Both Holmes and her daughter Rachel remembered Matthew as being funny, caring, and thoughtful.

Leonard also read a poem about the loss of a loved one, then concluded with her own words.

"Whenever I'm having a really tough day," she said, "or I'm thinking I just can't do this anymore, I picture my son saying 'Mom, you need to stop worrying and you need to carry on, and one day I know we'll be together, and that day, it'll be forever.'"

After that, the families left the church and went across the street to view the flags. Since Leonard and her volunteers could not place 2,537 flags -- the number of people who died of drug overdoses in Massachusetts in 2022 -- this year, they instead arranged hundreds of flags in the shape of a heart. As they gathered on the hill, the church bells rang. Somber faces could only be seen in the light of the tea candles.

Amanda Redden and her boyfriend Alex Torosian came to the vigil to honor 10 of their friends from high school who died of drug overdoses.

"To lose them at a young age, it just kind of shocks you, and it's hard," Torosian said, "but once you find a community like this, it's comforting to know you're not doing it alone."