Henry Granju: beautiful boy, a mother’s love

April 14, 2011

When you don’t have kids, you focus on all the joys you’re missing. That first step. The cute things kids say. The prom pictures. Your child’s first day of college and first step into adulthood. You think of hugs and kisses. Walking down the aisle. Grandkids.

I didn’t have children and it’s been a yawing gap in my life for decades. It wasn’t in the cards for me and I accept that it wasn’t. But every so often, in the still, pre-dawn hours, I think about all that I have missed.

What I don’t think about is how much of a crap shoot raising a child is. How parents are not the only influence in a kid’s life. That there is nurture, but also nature, and peer pressure. In those dark hours of the morning, I never think about how easily a kid can go off course in directions that can cause irreparable damage or even kill them.

Drugs were part of our generation’s coming of age. Baby boomers who went to college “experimented” with drugs. We smoked pot, ate mushrooms, did ‘Ludes and maybe sucked on a psychedelic sugar cube or two.

For most of us, experimentation was as far as it got and that’s pretty much how many of us boomers think about drugs: relatively benign and part of coming-of-age.

But that was before drugs became orders of magnitude more destructive. Crack, meth, heroin, ecstasy. And the legal ones: Oxycontin. Adderall , Dilaudid. Methadone. Available to anyone with money and an internet connection–no doctor’s prescription needed.

Kids ingest these things in crazy combinations without any thought of their effect. What does a kid know about respiratory depression, seizures and brain damage?

Or about the curse of addiction?

I know a little about addiction, just a little, really: enough to know how destructive it can be to relationships of all kinds. I know the shock when an addicted adult can’t even pull themselves together for their own children, much less for their own happiness. I know a little about how parents persevere out of love and concern to support their addict-child. How disappointing it is to see their beloved offspring’s potential grayed out by the demon of drugs. And I’ve seen and heard the helplessness that goes along with that parental concern.

Despite a big handful of friends with more than a passing acquaintance with 12-step programs, it’s been hard for me to grasp the idea of addiction as a disease. When I was much younger, I had a six-month romance with cocaine. I loved it. When I saw that I was becoming a woman who loved too much, I stopped. Period.

For me drugs were relatively benign. But they’re not so benign for others and we don’t yet understand why.

For all these complex reasons, the story of the life and death of mommy-blogger Kate Granju’s son, Henry, has resonated deeply with me.

It’s a complicated story. It’s every parent’s nightmare. And yet, it’s a lesson, too, in a heartbreaking kind of way.

Henry was a beautiful boy, that’s clear from the photographs his mother posts. His dark eyes are riveting. Long dark brown hair framed his face and his seemed lit from within. In this photo, bare-chested, wearing a shell necklace, Henry is the epitome of “in the flush of youth.” He was much loved by his family and friends.

Henry died last year. He was 18. He was a drug addict.

His death was the result of a massive drug overdose and a brutal assault related to drugs. And his death was not a peaceful one.

You may wonder who has been charged with the crime. The answer is “no one.” His death, like so many other drug-related deaths, has been largely ignored by the Tennessee justice system. In fact, disturbingly, they treated a recent case of animal cruelty more seriously. We are left with the assumption that the Knox County Sheriff’s office believes drug addicts are very low, indeed, and not deserving.

But despite every attempt to marginalize his life and his death, his mother perseveres. She is, after all, one of the most popular ‘mommy bloggers’ in the nation.

First, she grieved quietly and let justice take its course. But nine months later, the authorities had done little. So with the focus, persistence and love of a mother bear defending her young, Kate Granju has gone public with all she’s learned about her son’s attack and death.

She takes no pleasure in revealing the unsavory details, but neither does she hold back. I’m certain that like me, many readers were shocked to learn that drug dealers involve teenage addicts in prostitution to pay for drugs. Yes, even privileged youth from upper middle-class families are convinced to sell themselves for drugs. It’s an ugly scenario.

If you think of drug addicts as low-lifes, look at Henry’s picture above. A beautiful, smart, kind young man whose opportunities were limitless. That is what a drug addict looks like. Like anyone’s son.

Then look at how he died.

I think about Henry every day. His life and death have affected me in ways I can’t explain. I also think about Kate and how peace of any kind is only possible for her if there is justice for her child. And I am outraged that the authorities have not jumped on this case more aggressively or at the very least, communicated their plan to Henry’s family. It’s mind-boggling, really.

So what do we learn from the life and death of smart, beautiful, sensitive Henry Granju?

Kate Granju says that her family’s biggest mistake was rationalizing Henry’s early use of drugs as “experimentation,” something that just about any of us who have done drugs casually in our youth would do. If I’d had kids, I am certain that I, too, would minimize any early experimentation with pot.

Thing is, for some kids, it’s a gateway drug. Not for all. Some kids can experiment and let it go. Like I did so many years ago. But it’s different for those biologically wired for addiction. And there’s no way to know in which category your child falls.

I’m not going to pretend I suddenly understand drug addiction. But its grasp on the vulnerable seems iron-fisted in ways that had never been clearer to me until I began reading about Henry. Kate’s brutal honesty paints a picture every parent and grandparent needs to see. It is an amazing service to families everywhere. {The price of that brutal honesty is the mean and nasty blog comments made by a handful of people to this grieving mother. Outrageous, really, that the anonymity of the Internet brings out the Lord of the Flies in the worst of our species. That anyone would think a child’s death is deserved.}

The moral of Kate’s story — Henry’s story, really, is this: If your child is “experimenting” with drugs, take it seriously. Jump on it with counseling, treatment and whatever aggressive actions you can. Seize control of it before it takes your child, too. Henry’s family did do much of this. But Kate’s wishes she had done more. I’m not sure she could have. Sometimes, there’s nothing more that can be done. But I get that she would rather have been shaking things up hard on behalf of her living son than to get justice after he’s gone.

I’ve been reading about Henry for a while, as Kate’s blog has gotten broad coverage. But I know nit hasn’t reached everyone. Henry’s story is important, so please, do share this with other parents, grandparents, teachers and anyone who works with young people.

For details about Henry Granju’s case, visit Kate’s blog:

All images from Kate Granju’s blog.

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