Diane Hurley lost her son and her son-in-law to drug addiction, but she knows she is not alone.
The Lynn native and current Peabody resident lost her son-in-law, Greg, in 2015. Looking for a way to honor his life on the first anniversary of his passing, Hurley, her son, and her two daughters decided to hang black balloons outside of their homes to spread awareness about addiction.
Four years later and Black Balloon Day, March 6, is a national movement.
“In one way or another, I feel like everyone I talk to has dealt with this pain,” said Hurley. “I work in a nursing home and, including myself, there are seven or eight women who have all lost a child or a sibling to addiction.”
This year, Black Balloon Day means even more to Hurley and her family. Her son, Sean, lost his battle with drug addiction two months ago, after being sober for five years. In his obituary, she made sure to acknowledge his years of battling addiction.
“My son has a 15-month-old daughter and his fiancée gave birth to a little boy one week after his passing,” said Hurley. “When he used to tell me he had a disease, I would tell him not to say that and not to compare himself to people who actually have diseases, like cancer. I never really understood it.”
Hurley said, now she does understand that drug addiction is a disease. Since Black Balloon Day began, she has met hundreds of people going through the same pain. She also participated in a number of helpful seminars.
“I learned that it wasn’t a choice, it’s a disease,” said Hurley. “When people say: ‘They made this choice, it’s their problem,’ most of them do not understand that many people who suffer with addiction have some sort of underlying health issues.”
What is the reasoning behind the black balloons? Hurley was sitting on the beach after the death of her son-in-law and wanted to acknowledge his battle while letting other families know they are not alone.
“I thought of death,” Hurley said. “And then I thought of black.”
When Hurley asked her kids to put something up online about the black balloons in 2016, she said she never expected 42,000 people would want to join them. Now, every year on March 6, families across the country send photos of black balloons floating outside their homes, businesses, and community buildings.
Hurley said she and her family felt the beauty of sharing the message after they realized how widespread it became. It’s as simple as can be, she said. Wherever you live, you can go to a store, buy a black balloon, and hang it outside.
“Right after this first started, we called the Boston Health Department to ask about certain numbers and they told me I was helping end the stigma because I wasn’t afraid to talk about it,” Hurley said. “We were just trying to see how many people die of overdoses each year in different cities, but we couldn’t because most overdose death certificates are usually held up until the next year.”
A few weeks ago, Hurley’s goal of raising awareness about drug addiction was taken a step further. She said they officially became a non-profit and plan on raising money to put Narcan in public bathrooms, given that is a common place for people to use drugs.
Narcan, the medication that counteracts the life-threatening effects of an opioid overdose, may not be the answer to drug addiction, she said, but it gives someone a chance to fight for their life.
“We can’t be ashamed about addiction,” said Hurley. “We need to talk about it. It’s killing a whole generation of people and we have to do something.”