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Wendy Reuer, Published June 17 2013

Wife of man killed in 2011 Fargo crash organizes walk for memorial, addiction awareness

FARGO - When recovering drug addict James Dean Gress Jr. crashed his car into the Red River here two years ago today – dying two days later in the hospital – family and friends were adamant the 32-year-old had cleaned up his life.

While the reason Gress ran off the road in the 3400 block of Broadway shortly after 5 p.m. that day is unknown, his family was right: Toxicology reports returned no signs of alcohol or drugs, even synthetic ones.

Yet his wife suspects a prior relapse into using may have indirectly caused the crash.

Sarah Chatelain-Gress said she spoke to a counselor who told her James – or Jimmy as he was known – may have suffered a “schizophrenic/psychotic break” as a side effect of weaning himself off the use of synthetic marijuana. She said he was enraged the morning of the crash, and she suspects he could have had a similar episode later in the day while driving.

Chatelain-Gress said her husband’s death is just one way the grip of addiction has a far-reaching consequence the public rarely sees or discusses.

“We don’t seem to recognize how many people die because of this disease we call addiction,” Chatelain-Gress said.

She said a memorial potluck will be held at 4:30 p.m. today in Trollwood Park followed by a memorial lantern ceremony at the crash site on north Broadway in honor of Gress.

And while the event is meant to celebrate Gress and his short life, Chatelain-Gress said she hopes it will also be an event where those who have lost someone to addiction can visit and talk openly.

“It’s for all those people that have lost someone and they don’t know how to talk about it,” she said.

Effects of addiction

A recovering addict herself, Chatelain-Gress said she has lost many friends over the years to addiction. Whether it is the individual grappling with the disease, or friends and family of an addict struggling to help or cope with loss, Chatelain-Gress said so many still find it difficult to openly discuss the topic.

“They just kind of disappear into their own world. I don’t think a lot of them are ever comfortable with talking about it,” she said. “It’s a disease; it should be addressed like somebody dying from cancer.”

Beth Brantner, a counselor at the Lost and Found ministry in Moorhead, said Chatelain-Gress is right, addiction to drugs and alcohol does not affect just the user.

“When alcoholism or addiction is involved, the amount of grief, all the loss is immense,” Brantner said. “In this case you’re talking about loss of life, but you’re also talking about loss of dreams, goals, what could have been. That grief is huge both for the addict, and those that care about them.”

Brantner said research has shown about one in eight people nationwide struggle with addiction of alcohol or drugs. For every one of those people, 15 to 18 other lives can be affected, she said.

“Emotionally they are all about worry, worry, fear. They lose the joy and peace in life,” Brantner said.

Chatelain-Gress said she doesn’t think people realize how many lives drugs and alcohol claim.

“It’s never in the obits,” she said.

Brantner agrees.

“Sometimes it’s covered up. There is still a stigma about being an alcoholic or drug addict,” Brantner said. “It’s a no-fault disease. It’s a brain disease, and we need to get rid of that stigma.”

A shortened life

In James Gress Sr.’s office, a picture of his son and Chatelain-Gress is taped to the wall.

In two weeks, when Gress retires as an engineer for Fargo Public Schools and leaves his office for good, he’ll have to take down the picture, a task he dreads.

“It’s like a part of him is still there,” Gress said. “He used to come and visit me all the time there.”

The Gress men had a rocky relationship over the years, one complicated by Jimmy’s addiction. But before his death, father and son had begun to repair their relationship.

The elder Gress watched while his son studied at Minnesota State Community and Technical College and worked at Northern Steel Supply, learning to be a good husband and father to his daughter, Serenity. She was 3 weeks old at the time of his death.

Jimmy also has three older children: Alexandra, Chad and Mary Ann.

Gress said the loss of his son – who he since found out was known throughout the recovery community as a reliable support system for others – has caused him to grow in many ways.

“I just feel like God has lessons for us to learn. (Jimmy’s death) couldn’t go in vain; there had to be a lesson there,” Gress said.

The father said he’s not sure about the theory Chatelain-Gress has about his son having a withdrawal reaction to a synthetic drug. He said in 2011 that he suspected distracted driving may have caused the crash.

But he hopes today’s event will help others the way his daughter-in-law hopes. If his son’s memory can create change for one person, the event will be a success, he said.

“I learned so much from his death about his addictions,” Gress said. “The sad part is that it was too late because my son was gone.”

If you go

• What: James Gress Jr. Memorial Event

• When: 4:30 p.m. today

• Where: Trollwood Park

• Info: A potluck lunch will begin at 4:30 p.m. followed by a march to the crash site, where memorial lanterns will be released after 6:30 p.m. in memory of Gress

Lost and Found Ministry

The Lost and Found Ministry, 111 7th St. S., Moorhead, offers one of the largest libraries of addiction-related research materials in the region.

Intervention information as well as group and individual counseling for family and friends of addicts is available at the center. For more information about the Lost and Found Ministry, visit www.lostandfoundministry.org.

Al-Anon meeting times, which are anonymous meetings for family or friends of addicts also based on a 12-step program, can be found at www.al-anon.alateen.org.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530