Grandmother picks up the pieces after family decimated by heroin
Andrea and Michael Frick broke free of their heroin addiction on Independence Day — free of the gnawing need, the dope sickness, the shame, the guilt. But they paid for that freedom with their lives.
The price was nearly as steep for the Fricks' two young children, an 8-year-old son and a daughter, 3-1/2. Orphaned in a night, they are being raised by their grandmother, Bernadette Reineberg of Chester County.
It was the children who found their parents dead, Reineberg confirmed, although they didn't understand what they were seeing.
Thinking their mom and dad were sleeping, but unable to rouse them, the kids called a family member who called 911. It was too late.
"As a parent of someone who is addicted, especially to heroin, you always know (death) is a possibility," Reineberg said. "It's a fear that's always kind of hanging there."
Reineberg, 52, hoped for the best, but said hope was taken from her when her daughter and son-in-law died.
"I would have given my life to have her cured from this disease," she said of Andrea.
Overdosed together: Andrea, 29, and husband Michael, 44, were pronounced dead July 4 in their York City home on Girard Avenue. Blood tests determined Michael died of heroin toxicity and Andrea died of mixed-substance toxicity that included heroin, according to the York County Coroner's Office.
"I can't define them as just two people who were addicted to a drug. They were more than that," Reineberg said. "There is such a stigma about drug addicts, and they're more than their disease."
The Fricks — who met at a 12-step meeting and married in 2011 — loved each other, loved their children and were good parents when they were clean, according to Reineberg. They tried to stay off drugs, she said, and each "worked programs," in rehabilitation parlance.
"I believe it was a vicious circle," she said. "I believe possibly one was doing well and the other was struggling, and it went back and forth. ... They really shouldn't have been together. They just pulled each other down."
Back in rehab: Andrea was in rehab in April, just three months before her death.
"Ironically, I thought she looked the best I'd seen her in years," Reineberg said. "Her eyes were clear and blue, and I thought that her life had been turned around."
But Andrea was unable to maintain her sobriety.
"She tried, but couldn't beat the disease," Reineberg said. "It got her in the end."
Over the years, Reineberg did everything she knew to help her daughter, including resorting to tough love.
"Sometimes you have to love from a distance," she said. "It's probably the only way to keep your sanity when you're dealing with a person who is in and out of recovery and very sick."
Reineberg said the best advice she can give to parents and loved ones of addicts is to join support groups so they can learn about addiction.
Long battle: Like many heroin addicts, Andrea first dabbled with alcohol and bad influences, according to her mother.
"I believe it started with alcohol, actually," she said. "Then it was just people, places and things — being around other people who were taking risks and living a risky lifestyle. That's how she was introduced to different drugs."
Andrea's addiction issues started in 2002, when she was a teenager. Prior to that, Andrea had time to pursue her interests and talents, her mother said. Musically gifted, she played guitar and clarinet. For a time, she was part of the YWCA of York's gymnastic team.
"I just can't describe enough her wonderful qualities," Reineberg said.
But Andrea's focus turned inward as her heroin addiction took hold.
"It pretty much took over her life," Reineberg said. "She was just in and out of recovery throughout those years."
Even as an adult, Andrea knew she had to stay in a program or risk relapse. When she was using, she sometimes isolated herself from her family, "because there's a lot of shame involved," according to her mother.
Focus on kids: Reineberg said after learning Andrea and Michael were dead, she put her own grief aside and focused on her orphaned grandchildren.
"I just really kind of morphed into (the mindset of), 'They need to be taken care of,' ... and forgot about everything else," she said. "You just do what needs to be done for the children."
They now live with her, and both see a pediatric psychiatrist and attend a loss-and-bereavement group for children.
"They're very resilient and are doing remarkably well," Reineberg said.
She's unsure when she will tell them what really happened to their parents.
"I just keep loving them," Reineberg said. "Miraculously, we have a lot of support — a big circle of support."
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org.