Kristy Whaley was grieving.

Her 25-year-old son, Kyle, had been struggling for years to fight the grip that opioids had on his life.

Whaley was mourning the loss of the dreams and hopes she had held for her son.

The pain led the Westerville, Ohio, woman to a grief recovery program, where she found support from others and learned techniques to manage the loss.

She finished the program on Aug. 31.

Sixteen days later, Kyle died of a drug overdose.

Since then, Whaley, 49, has turned to those grief-recovery tools to help cope with the devastation.

“I don’t buy into the notion that Kyle died before his time,” she told people gathered at his funeral. “Our stories and journeys are written before we are born, and this was Kyle’s journey.”

Lois Hall taught the Grief Recovery Method course that Whaley attended. She has seen more and more people coming to the courses after being affected by the opioid crisis.

A public health issue

But grief recovery isn’t just for coping with the death of loved ones, she said. It can help after any loss, including divorce or retirement, the deployment or incarceration of a loved one or the diagnosis of a serious illness.

“One hundred percent of us are grievers, and nothing is being done to address this,” said Hall, who was certified in the Grief Recovery Method by the Oregon-based Grief Recovery Institute in 1998. “The whole community needs to be involved in teaching people tools to get hope back in their lives.”

People living with unresolved grief, Hall said, might turn to unhealthy habits that can lead to premature deaths — smoking, overeating, gambling, violence and, increasingly, drugs.

As such, she contends that addressing grief — essentially building resiliency and hope — is a growing public health issue as the overdose death count continues to rise.

Hall references a report issued in November by the Trust for America’s Health, a Washington, D.C.-based health policy group.

Its authors refer to fatalities caused by drugs, alcohol and suicide as “deaths of desperation,” with 1 million from 2006 to 2015, and an expected 1.6 million more from 2016 to 2025.

Hall, former executive director of the Ohio Public Health Association, also points to the Franklin County Public Health department, where the concept of hope provides a framework for a Community Health Improvement Plan expected to be released soon.

Health Commissioner Joe Mazzola said the idea came up as an advisory committee discussed goals to address several social issues that impact health, such as economic stability, education, access to affordable transportation and affordable quality housing.

“If we don’t have hope, we aren’t going to be able to move forward in those areas,” he said. “We thought that it was important that we acknowledge it and keep it as a guiding principle.”

Post-traumatic growth

The department also has submitted a proposal to the philanthropic Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to fund a project that would seek to determine whether certain communication and empathy skills and strategies will increase community resiliency in the face of natural disasters or ongoing stress.

Resiliency can also be referred to as post-traumatic growth, said Ken Yeager, clinical director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience Program at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio.

While some people might be paralyzed by a loss such as a job layoff, others will look at it as an opportunity for positive change.

Connecting people with their coping mechanisms and helping them put together action plans is possible, Yeager said. But implementing that in the public health arena will take the creation of a network that connects people in crisis to those who can help them work through it.

Sarah Barnett of Mount Sterling, Ohio, attended a grief-recovery course after the December 2016 overdose death of her longtime partner, 33-year-old Joe Kuhn. He was the father of her three children, now ages 6, 5 and 3. She is now raising the children on her own.

Hall said the program transformed Barnett from a woman who was broken to one who has plans to foster change in her Madison County community.

Barnett, 30, was so struck by the grief-recovery courses that she became certified as a Grief Recovery Method facilitator.

“I knew how much it helped me and I knew how much I’ve been through,” she said. ”And addiction is everywhere, and there are a lot of places that are out in the country that don’t have access to things like in the city.”

Whaley, as part of her grief journey, turned to Facebook to connect with groups of parents who also had lost children. She’s working to create awareness about the opioid epidemic and to get a sober home opened in Columbus, Ohio. She’s also part of a group of addicts’ parents who put together “blessing bags” of toiletries for people who are homeless or entering rehab.

Vicki Shepherd, a co-facilitator with Hall who trained about 10 years ago after attending a course to help her cope with the death of her father, said a number of people in her own family have suffered with addiction issues. As a result, she is raising three grandchildren.

She said the course teaches people to be OK with their grief, to talk about it, to better communicate with others and to refrain from making judgments. It has helped her deal with a number of losses she has experienced in her life.

“We aren’t going to be able to stop bad things from happening,” Shepherd said. “What you get from some of these tools is better ways to cope with those losses when they happen and better ways to deal with those emotions so that you can move forward.”

— JoAnne Viviano writes about health and medicine for The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. Email her at jviviano@dispatch.com or follow her on Twitter at @JoAnneViviano.