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New London community comes out of isolation to mourn together

New London — Dusk turned into candlelight on Parade Plaza as dozens of people gathered in communal grief Friday to remember those they'd mourned alone during the coronavirus pandemic.

Errol Maurice, senior director of community programs for Sound Community Services, told the crowd that the pandemic keeping people apart for the past two years is the same thing that unites them.

"Whether you're white, Black or brown, we all have that in common," he said. "Tonight, you're not alone."

Sound Community Services CEO Gino DeMaio said the Evening of Remembrance was a way for the organization — already hit hard by the loss of clients to suicide, overdose and severe medical conditions before the pandemic hit — to put closure to the significant losses experienced over the past two years.

"The idea was borne to come out into the community and be with all of you so we can have the forum to deal with our pain, our loss and our suffering," he said. "I know we're not the only ones."

Debbie Phillips, a recent graduate of one of the organization's treatment programs, said she knew so many people who died since the emergence of COVID-19 that she'd stopped counting.

She recalled the death of her friend David earlier this year.

"I blame COVID for David's passing," Phillips said. "When David passed, he was in isolation. All his support systems were taken away, because when COVID hit, everything was stopped."

She was emotional as she described David's downward spiral. "He started using again, and died of a drug overdose."

David was always impeccably dressed, she remembered. He was handsome and he knew it. He was a leader among residents in his treatment program and assumed the role of big brother when Phillips' own son undertook a year of intensive, inpatient therapy in the same house. When Debbie and David talked, he always made it a point to tell her something positive about her son.

"David always made it a point to let me know my son was going to be OK," she said.

Jen Muggeo, deputy director of Ledge Light Health District, said the burden of grief is not borne equally. "In our work on the Overdose Action Team, we often say every overdose is a policy failure. That's not just a line. It's true. And it applies to more than overdose."

She cited inequities in health care, food access, criminal justice, housing and employment that result in "premature death for Black, brown and Indigenous people in our community and across the country."

She said part of remembering is moving forward with the kind of "big, bold, necessary steps" to prevent more unnecessary loss.

State Rep. Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, a co-founder of the grassroots nonprofit organization Community Speaks Out whose son, Joey Gingerella, was fatally shot in Groton in December 2016, described Friday's candlelit vigil on the plaza as a way to "remember what we need to remember."

"Think of all the people that we've lost and that we didn't go to a funeral for," he said. "That we didn't get to say goodbye to."

Forty or so people lit white taper candles off each other's flames before Michelle Morales, wife of Pastor Jesse Morales of Thames River Church, led an a capella rendition of Bill Withers' "Lean on Me" as the crowd sang along.


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