O’neil Gray, left, talks with Pat Byrne, street advocate. Item Photo by Owen O’Rourke
By Gayla Cawley
LYNN — A Lynn street advocate and retired postal service worker is receiving national recognition for helping to turn the personal tragedy of his son’s death to addiction into help for others for their substance abuse, mental illness or suicidal thoughts.
On Sept. 21, Patrick Byrne, 65, will be honored by the National Association of Letter Carriers in Washington D.C., which has recognized him as one of their Heroes of the Year, and has awarded him the Education Award.
“I found it kind of strange,” Byrne said of winning the award. “I don’t think anything I’ve done is heroic. My fellow honorees have walked into burning buildings and stopped a robbery in progress.”
Before his son, James Byrne, died in 2014 at 40 to a heroin overdose, he had been drug-free for seven months. James Byrne had fought addiction for 20 years and received a call from an old friend asking him to find heroin. He refused at first, but later gave in, buying the drug for his friend and using it himself, which led to his overdose and death.
Byrne said losing his son redoubled his advocacy efforts and gave him a new perspective as a grieving parent. He began to work with the families, as opposed to just the addicts.
When his son died, he said he and his wife made a conscious effort to be open with the reason for the death, acknowledging the addiction in an obituary, which ran in the Daily Item and grabbed the attention of other news outlets. Too many times, he said, an obituary says dies suddenly or unexpectedly for someone who dies at a young age. For the family of an addict, he said, there’s nothing sudden or unexpected about it.
“You live in fear of that phone ringing,” he said.
Byrne has worked as a street advocate for the Lynn Shelter Association for the past decade. As an advocate, he said he tries to give a voice to those who don’t have one, which mostly includes the homeless community. With the homeless, there are quite a few alcoholics, people who are dependent on drugs and those with mental health concerns.
He visits and does wellness checks and gets people into treatment facilities, if necessary. He works with the Police Department, city government and Lynn Area Chamber of Commerce, acting as sort of a buffer between mainstream society and the homeless community.
Before that, Byrne worked for the postal service for 32 years, retiring in 2006. He has served as president of the letter carriers union for Lynn, Swampscott, Saugus and Nahant for 22 years, a position he will retire from after this year.
After his son died, his efforts went national, through his work with the “Silent No More” initiative, which was launched through the Postal Service’s Employee Assistance Program. The initiative helps postal employees or their families break through the stigma and shame, whether it be to help with suicide, mental illness or chemical dependency, and to share personal stories.
Byrne said his work with the initiative, which he got involved with two years ago, has included sharing his story. He said it’s important for people to know that they shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for help if they’re struggling with addiction or mental illness. It’s also important for parents to know it’s not because of them if their child succumbs to their disease.
For the addict and their family, they should also know that they’re not alone, he added. The struggles can happen to anyone, Byrne said. James had a master’s degree in computer science from Boston University and was a white collar worker making a lot of money. He had a good upbringing and came from a loving family, he added.
Before James died, Byrne said he saw him that morning, as his son was walking down the street to breakfast. The last thing they said to each other was “I love you” and made plans to have dinner together the next day. Included in his son’s obituary was a sentence for readers to “tell their children that they love them.”
“When you lose something as precious as a child, you don’t want to look back,” Byrne said. “I was blessed. I didn’t have to think about that last ugly conversation. Our last conversation was an affirmation of love for each other. That provided some solace.”
Gayla Cawley can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.