PEABODY — Each year on March 6, Diane Hurley hangs a black balloon outside her home.
For Hurley and her daughter, Lauren Cook, the gesture started as a way to remember Greg Tremblay, Hurley's son-in-law and Cook's brother-in-law. A father of four, Tremblay died March 6, 2015, of a drug overdose. He was 38 years old.
In 2016, as the one-year anniversary of Tremblay’s passing approached, Hurley thought about what they could do for him. She envisioned balloons.
That year, Hurley and Cook started Black Balloon Day — a day to honor and raise awareness of overdose victims. They say more than 42,000 people participated on March 6, 2016, and Black Balloon Day has become a national and international movement.
On Wednesday, Hurley, a longtime Peabody resident, invites those who have been affected by the drug epidemic to hang a balloon outside their home and post it on social media with the hashtag #BlackBalloonDay.
“I had this vision that you wouldn’t be able to escape the balloons, just like you can’t escape this epidemic,” she said, explaining how addiction doesn’t discriminate and touches everyone.
The Facebook event Cook created for Black Balloon Day erupted on social media its first year. “It was huge,” she noted, saying it extended to Europe and Australia. Eight hours after creating the event, there were more than 20,000 interested supporters.
Peabody and Lynn city halls hang up black balloons as well.
Cook continues to manage their social media platforms. “It’s become our own online support group,” she added, saying it gives people a place to go to for advice and helps them find locations of detox beds in their area.
More importantly, she hopes people will know they are not alone.
Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains increased significantly in 2017 with more than 70,000 overdoses.
In Massachusetts, the state Department of Public Health counted 1,974 estimated and confirmed overdose deaths in 2018.
“We want to end the stigma and get together to fight this war,” Hurley noted. She doesn’t want people to feel embarrassed or ashamed of their addiction.
Her son, Sean Paul Hurley, died of an overdose in January. “He was doing very well,” she said, adding how he was engaged and had a second child on the way. The 30-year-old had a long period of sobriety, but relapsed soon after losing a close friend last April.
“All I know is the personal end of it,” Hurley said. “We can try to help mothers like me and save lives so they won’t have to experience what I’m going through.”
After several years, Black Balloon Day is now an established nonprofit organization. “There are so many avenues we can go down and many ways to raise money,” Hurley said. Their goal is to have naloxone — the fast acting treatment for overdoses — available in public places and restrooms for someone to administer before first responders arrive.
“You have the chance to save someone’s life,” Cook said.
They’re also working to design a website that will contain resources and allow for donations.
“I wish it will end one day and we won’t have to put out these balloons,” Hurley said. “But I’m going to continue what I started.”