New support group to aid families grieving overdose deaths

Anita Lewis: ‘The two groups who grieve the hardest are those with an overdose or suicide in the family’

Karen Wolownik Albert, chief executive officer at Recovery Centers of America in St. Charles, wears a ribbon in honor of International Overdose Awareness Day, which is Aug. 31.

ST. CHARLES – The aftermath of drug overdose deaths devastate the remaining survivors in different ways than a death by accident or illness because they often face judgment instead of compassion from others.

Kane County Coroner Rob Russell, Kane County Board member Anita Lewis, D-Aurora, and St. Charles doctoral candidate Sydney Johnson seek to change that with an eight-session bereavement therapy program designed specifically to provide support and healing for people grieving an overdose death.

Kane County had 78 overdose deaths in 2022.

Johnson first brought the idea to Russell, who then reached out to Lewis, who lost two nephews to drug overdoses.

“I did an internship with the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office this summer. They had just established the Drug Intelligence and Intervention Group and that’s the team I was interning with,” Johnson said. “They started offering bereavement groups to the next of kin for overdose deaths. While there, I created a grief workbook and facilitators’ manual.”

Johnson is working on a doctorate in clinical psychology from Roosevelt University in Chicago. Her research is in substance abuse disorders and trauma.

“My interest is in working with people who use drugs and working with their families and loved ones and friends,” Johnson said. “There is such a large gap in terms of the understanding of substance use or addiction.”

Because Johnson is from Kane County, she thought this was something important to implement back home.

“We have high overdose numbers relative to the population,” Johnson said. “An overdose loss is a very specific thing. There’s a lot of stigma and self-blame. I am trying to create a group of people with a shared experience who can come together and not feel judged.”

Participants – she’s looking for eight to 10 families – will meet for eight weeks at Russell’s office starting in late October or early November. The office is part of the Judicial Center campus, 37W699 Route 38, St. Charles Township.

Those interested should call or text 773-309-1060 or email

This is not an open drop-in type group, but one that will attend all eight weeks together and structured.

Johnson said when the newsletter, Kane County Connects, first notified subscribers about this program, a few reached out to her immediately.

“One woman I was corresponding with shared that she was looking forward to a more structured group,” Johnson said. “The way another grief group was run, she was reliving her son’s death over and over again.”

Russell said he was happy to support a program like this one.

“The thing specific about this is that it’s a cohort type model, not a drop-in type of class,” Russell said. “What they’re finding out is that if there is one opioid user in the family, there may be others or friends who may be at risk. … I care about the families who have to deal with the devastation of that loss. This is what we can do to help others understand and prevent future deaths. That is my hope.”

Lewis said she knows from personal experience how important a program such as this one is for survivors of an overdose death.

“I lost my daughter in a car accident. I taught GriefShare at my church. When I lost my husband, I was a facilitator,” Lewis said.

GriefShare is a national program to train lay ministry teams in local churches to help people through the grief of a major life crisis, according to its website,

“The two groups who grieve the hardest are those with an overdose or suicide in the family. Because of all the stigma and guilt, they’re made to feel like they should have done something,” Lewis said. “They grieve the hardest because there is so much personal guilt.”

When one of her sisters lost a son to an overdose years ago, instead of people being compassionate, they said she should have been a better parent, Lewis said.

One issue that comes forward when survivors of an overdose death come to a grief group is that there usually are other children, family or friends who have addictions, Lewis said.

“One thing I’m really hoping comes out of this … is we can help them with resources to save another life,” Lewis said.