After a fatal heroin overdose, the grief lingers for a Lancaster County family

Written by Ben Allen, General Assignment Reporter | Jan 15, 2015 4:00 AM

Earlier, I told the story of the days, weeks and months leading up to Anthony's death, and how he actually died.

(Mount Joy Township) -- Stacy Emminger, mother to Anthony Perez, remembers the good. Anthony's smile, the way he could keep you laughing so hard that you were rolling on the floor begging for a break, and his fascination with working on cars.

But she also can't forget what March first of last year was like.

"I went up to see and he was dead. He had been I'm guessing, from what we can piece together. He was still texting from his phone records, at like 6:30 Saturday morning, and then that stopped, so I'm assuming that's probably about when it happened. And he had been dead a couple hours by that time," says Stacy.

Since then, she hasn't been able to go up the stairs at night. Instead, she sleeps on the couch - the anxiety is too much. She had worked too hard to try to keep Anthony alive.

"Heroin is the hardest drug to get off of. It's cheap, it's easy to get, it's everywhere. He had this giant infection, he would inject right into it."

"It did not stop him."


Photo by Stacy Emminger

Anthony Perez holds his newborn son Gage in this 2012 photo. Anthony died from a heroin overdose in March 2014.

Watching Anthony became her full-time job. She stopped leaving the house - she was afraid he was going to take her stuff, her ATM card, her car, anything he could get his hands on to feed his addiction. Stacy realizes it all led to her divorce from Stephen Mercado in 2007.

"I was so focused on Anthony, because I had to save him, that it took my focus away from everybody else in the family. In the beginning, when I was hiding everything, that was hard for me to hide things, to keep those secrets."

"The house, it was a war zone. It wasn't pleasant to be here. You could walk in and feel it."

Jesse Mercado, now 19 years old,  is Anthony's brother. He's four years younger than Anthony was when he died. Yet even when he was much younger, he recognized the impact the addiction was having, and adjusted.

"I don't remember when they first told me that he had been experimenting with cocaine and all that stuff. I felt like since he took all this attention and so much time, I personally felt obligated to not be as needy as a child. I tried to I guess, shut myself away from all of it. I felt like I had to be here to protect my mom."

Sitting around the dining room table at the Emminger's home in Mount Joy Township, Lancaster County, Jesse explains just how much he's changed who he is because of Anthony.

"I learned how to sort of cut myself off from the people that I love and the people that I care about and that sometimes some people, you just can't help because they don't want to help themselves."

How hard is that?

"That sucks. It's awful. I wouldn't wish this on anyone."

Stacy could only look on as she heard Jesse speak.


Photo by Ben Allen/witf

Pictures of Anthony, from a display board made for his wake and funeral.

Yet knowing all the turmoil Anthony brought into the house, knowing what it has done to so many in her family, and how it played a part in wrecking her marriage, she's still a mother at heart.

"It's very difficult to say that there's relief now. There's a peacefulness in the house. In some ways, the inevitable happened and there's maybe a little bit of closure and okay, we knew it was going to happen," she adds.

"It's my son and I want him back. And even though it was terrible, it's very difficult to say, I would deal with it again."

Stacy sees a counselor every week, as have other family members. But she found herself turning to drinking, before backing away.  She says she isn't ready for group therapy yet, and suicidal thoughts still can run through her head.

"I felt, and I still feel guilt, where did I go wrong? I go through every day, relive it in my head. What could I have done?"

"You can't, especially once they hit a certain age, they're responsible for themselves, and you have to absolve yourself of the responsibility and the guilt. It doesn't do any good."


Photo by Ben Allen/witf

A remembrance box containing Anthony's ashes.

"Be there to help them if they want to get clean, but you can't force them to. That's the big thing. You can't fix them."

The second guessing can keep her up at night. It's not as bad for Stephen Mercado, Anthony's step father, who moved out of the house when he divorced from Stacy in 2007, but the triggers still rear their head.

"It's difficult as anything. I'm not afraid to admit that sometimes at night I go to bed and I'm weeping like a baby. And there are some times when some things will catch my eye like a photograph of Anthony, or something he may have written to me, and it just strikes me" says Stephen.

"It's very hard. It's a grief like you'll never know."

Stacy is still coming to grips with that grief. She tries - really tries - to look to the future. The problem is, she just can't.

"One day at a time. Hard to see the rest of my life clearly without Anthony in it. I spent so long, I was Anthony's mom. I had plans. While I saw myself growing old here, I don't anymore. I don't know where I'm going to end up."

More than nine months after Anthony's death, she isn't ready to carry around any mementos yet.


Photo by Ben Allen/witf

Jesse Mercado wears Anthony's chain to remember his brother, who died of a heroin overdose in March 2014.

Her ex-husband Stephen does have some of Anthony's t-shirts that he'll wear on the weekends, and Jesse sports one of Anthony's chain necklaces. He sees a responsibility now getting placed on him.

"Basically, I'm going to be the best man I can in honor of him because I feel like the things that I plan on doing, he'll be really proud of, that I didn't take the route that he did," says Jesse.

"And sorta be the best role model for his son. That's definitely a top priority."

Since his death March first, each of Anthony's closest family members have worked through the grief in different ways. But each also knows one thing - heroin is a powerful opioid, and after witnessing the rip it can tear in a family and the lives it can change forever, they want to keep anyone they can away from the drug.

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