Grieving Mothers Stop Fighting Their Feelings — And Start Punching Them Instead

When Catherine Fennelly’s son Paul died last year of a drug overdose, she was understandably heartbroken. But she was also angry. “The anger comes from knowing you are powerless,” she says. “You don’t want to hear that you couldn’t help your kid. . . . When you’re feeling powerless and helpless, anger is the biggest component.”

Indeed, throughout the course of her son’s struggle with substance use, Fennelly experienced a lot of anger, estimating that it was at least as strong as the sadness she felt. However, while people were willing to talk about how sad her son’s addiction was, they were less willing to hear about Fennelly’s anger.

“It’s a natural part of being human. Anger is an emotion we all have,” Fennelly says. Yet, it can be especially hard for women to express. While society says it’s acceptable for mothers of children struggling with addiction to feel sad, it’s often taboo to express anger. But it’s understandable to respond to the devastation caused by the disease of addiction in a loved one’s life with anger.

“Society makes it like you’re so dainty, like we only talk,” Fennelly says. “But you’re lying if you say you’ve never met a woman who’s punched something or thrown a phone.”

Having an outlet for that anger is exactly why Fennelly founded Let It Out, a boxing program for the family members of people struggling with addiction. The untraditional support group now operates in two locations in Massachusetts. The classes offer loved ones the chance to express the anger that is a natural part of dealing with addiction in the family.

“Your body will take over,” Fennelly says. The rush of endorphins from exercise has a real physical effect on people who are living the extremely stressful experience of watching a loved grapple with addiction, or navigating grief. “Your own body has a way of healing yourself.”

Fennelly, who has been boxing for years, knows that the sport has restorative powers.

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Credit: Catherine Fennelly

“I’ve always turned to that when I’m mad or angry or can’t take it any more,” she says. She returned to boxing when her son was struggling with addiction to release some of her anger. Although she realized that the sport could help others, the timing wasn’t right for her to start a program.

“I was too consumed with trying to save my son’s life,” she says.

However, after Paul’s death in February 2015, Fennelly knew through her pain that the timing was right.

“Everyone went back to their own lives and I was by myself,” she says. “I was so afraid if I didn’t do something I was going to hit rock bottom and I wasn’t going to get back up.”

Fennelly contacted a local gym, which volunteered space and trainers. Each Thursday night, mothers whose children were fighting addiction came to release their frustration.

“I’m surrounded by people who get it,” Fennelly says.

Although the program is not specifically for mothers, they do comprise the largest demographic.

Let It Out fulfilled a need for Fennelly to release her feelings rather than ruminating on them. When she’d tried traditional grief groups, Fennelly often left feeling more upset than she was when she arrived.

“For me, it made me sadder,” she says. “They would say stuff and it would trigger more grief, because something they said sparked something I hadn’t even thought of.” In the end, Fennelly would absorb the grief from others in the group, rather than letting go of her own feelings.

“The difference is in [standard] grief groups, I’m a fixer, and I want to be able to heal these people. I would put away my own grief sometimes,” she says. When she boxes, however, “I’ll give myself the time to actually let it out.”

After Paul’s death, Fennelly was in the hospital with her own chronic health concern. However, when she founded Let It Out and began participating in the classes in the way she advised others to, her health concerns subsided. “I haven’t been sick since,” she says. “It’s all about the stress.”

In the addiction world, Let It Out is unique in that it brings together the family members of those who are actively suffering from addiction, and those whose loved ones have died of the disease. “There shouldn’t be a tear between the two,” Fennelly says. “I was on both sides. I watched my son actively struggle. Now I don’t have him.”

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Credit: Catherine Fennelly

At Let It Out, Fennelly shares resources for fighting addiction and navigating grief, and shares her experiences with participants. Although she doesn’t think of herself as an expert, she shares her story in the same no-nonsense way that she’s always approached addiction. “I don’t know what it is about me, but I have no problem sharing,” she says. “You knew my son was an addict, and if you weren’t okay with it then you knew not to talk to me. If you weren’t accepting, you were out of my life.”

In some ways, Let It Out has helped Fennelly reconnect with others, something she wasn’t able to do when she was purely focused on her son’s survival. “I was that mom who was always alone,” she says. “Ever since Paul passed, I’ve never needed people more. That wall broke down; that defense was gone.”

Let It Out has allowed her to express her grief and anger, and enable other women to express all their emotions — even the ones that are less socially acceptable.

“[Anger is] in everybody and society [says] you’re not supposed to be angry, you’re supposed to be sad,” she says. “But you’re angry because you have to keep on living. I’m angry because I couldn’t fix it and still don’t have the answer.”

Most recently, as spring comes to Massachusetts, Let It Out has been meeting on the beach, with participants working out their anger and frustrations along the shore.

“We’re listening to the water crashing, in the sand,” Fennelly says. “We work [out], and it feels absolutely amazing.”

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