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10.06.10

A Mommy Blog's Heartbreaking Turn

Katie Granju’s parenting blog was beloved by readers. But when her teenage son died of a drug overdose, many were shocked—and then she chose to grieve online.

Long-time readers felt they knew the details of Katie Allison Granju’s life intimately, either through her blog musings on Mamapundit and Babble.com or through her parenting essays. Devotees of Attachment Parenting, a child rearing philosophy that emphasizes breastfeeding, co-sleeping, positive discipline, and other “connecting” principles, read the Tennessee mom’s book or, at the very least, heard of it. But behind the firewall of her online and publishing persona, Katie kept a secret about one of the biggest parenting hurdles: teenage drug addiction. 

That was until April 27, when she learned her 18-year-old son Henry was in the ICU, unresponsive after a physical assault and subsequent drug overdose. She revealed this to her readers the following week:

I've been worried about what would happen if our family's terrible secret "got out" - that my son suffers from a life threatening drug addiction … as someone who has been writing essays and blogging about her family life for many years, I had alluded to the issue obliquely here and there … However, until this week, until H overdosed and ended up on life support in the ICU, I had never said it clearly, proactively, without obfuscation or minimizing: I am the mother of a drug addict.

The response from online media and the blogosphere was predictably schizophrenic: a mix of heartfelt support with a smattering of anonymous vitriol slamming her for being a “self absorbed” blogger who “sacrificed her son for her selfish needs for fame and fortune.” As a reluctant expert who was a pioneer of the mommy blog platform, her admission made her an easy punching bag for the vehemently righteous to deliver one “told you so” blow after another.

“Although people think they know everything about a blogger’s life, they’re only getting a glimpse.”

One commenter wrote, “Oh please can I get parenting advice from you? It sounds like everything you did worked out just great...I want my child to turn out just like yours…NOT!!!”

Another chimed in, “She is the worst parent and idiots listen to her essays on parenting…Hopefully, the boy will get a better parent in his next life.”

And another: “Lady, there are millions of addicts out there, yours isn't that special.”

But this one was wrong. The story of Henry, whose 19th birthday is today, did touch a chord. The online community rallied around her, offering virtual hugs, advice, support and, above all, accolades for blogging about the real deal. One reader saw a post describing Henry’s condition and showed it to her husband, a renowned neurologist. He tracked Katie down on Facebook and within six hours took over her son’s treatment.

Most bloggers emote in a worldwide void, yet there are a precious few who have that something extra that compels readers to return daily or, in Mamapundit’s case, at least twice a day. Katie’s blog maintains some 300,000 page views a month.

But, as she explained to me in a recent phone conversation, “Although people think they know everything about a blogger’s life, they’re only getting a glimpse.”

Katie continued to blog in excruciating detail, chronicling the worst parenting experience of them all—mothering a dying child. Her reasoning was simple. “The experience,” she said, “[was] so traumatic that if I hadn’t written it down I wouldn’t have remembered most of it.”

Thirty-seven days after being admitted to the hospital, 18-year-old Henry Granju died of delayed post-hypoxic leukoencephalopathy, a rare complication resulting from drug overdoses. That same day, May 31, Mamapundit.com received so many hits that the server crashed

Although deemed an accidental death, a criminal investigation of what led to Henry’s hospitalization and ultimate death is still ongoing. Evidence suggests that 36 hours prior to Henry’s overdose, he was either buying or selling drugs in a parking lot when he was beaten and robbed. He spent the next several days complaining of a severe headache and, through a murky stream of events, got mixed up with an older couple that the family believes gave him a large dose of methadone.

Methadone, an increasingly popular recreational drug, is prescribed to treat opioid dependence. It releases slowly into the bloodstream, making a large dose of it particularly dangerous when combined with other drugs, which Henry had in his system. Add to this his creeping brain injury, and the combination proved lethal.

Katie has used her blog to share her frustration and disappointment, as well as dismay, with the Knox County Sheriff’s Office’s handling of her son’s case, but not as a vigilante soapbox to lubricate the system. To wit, “I do not wish to sully or interfere with their ongoing investigation… [but] as I sit here next to my dead son’s medical records that refer to “assault,” “skull fracture,” closed head injury,” it’s hard for me to understand reasoning that assumes [this] has no relevance to their investigation.”

Faced now with questions of fault and criminal liability, Katie’s mommy blog has entered a niche she thought unfathomable when she started it eight years ago. She’s now part of a “very undesirable club” of parents caught up in a very public, extremely complicated grieving process. She is, as she put it in a post this past September, a mother, interrupted.

Her writing is sometimes visceral, like in a post about the “medical desecration” of her son’s body during his autopsy and the mental horror of having to cremate her child.

“You see women in the Middle East wailing and clutching at their enshrouded sons or women in India having to be held back from throwing themselves on the funeral pyre,” Katie explained to me. “That post was my version of what seems to me would be a pretty universal mothering experience. We live in a sanitized society and I didn’t get a chance to throw myself on the pyre.”

Other aspects of Katie’s grief are transformational, taking the adage it takes a village and updating it with a post-modernist, fully globalized twist—it now takes an e-village to mourn a child.

On the day of Henry’s funeral, writer Ayun Halliday reached out to her network of mom bloggers and writers to put together a photo tribute. “Between us [we] churn out bazillions of words,” Ayun told me. “But words were inadequate on my end that day.”

Soon readers started sending their own photographic tributes in, from Antarctica to the tip of South Africa.

“People talk about online community or social media being impersonal,” said Katie. “Really, I think it’s way more personal, in a way. People are empowered to reach out in a way that would be scary if they were face to face.”

Since Henry’s death, Katie has also received hundreds of emails, some seeking guidance, from parents with teenagers struggling with the same addiction issues. “I’ve become extremely uncomfortable saying anything that anyone could perceive as advice because I’m thinking, oh my God, I’m the last person anyone should be asking,” Katie says. Nevertheless, “Henry’s life has to mean something.”

She’s started an endowed non-profit called Henry’s Fund with the aim of raising scholarships for teenagers and young adults in need of drug treatment. The Fund has raised $15,400, still a small fraction of the out-of-pocket costs, often as high as $100,000 for nine months of recovery, associated with residential treatment. While Henry used marijuana and cocaine, the extent of his opiate addiction was underestimated, as it is for an increasing number of American teenagers.

“My heart is broken,” Katie says. But it is not a heartache that exists in a bubble. The grieving mother would shroud herself in widow’s weeds if she could. Instead she can cocoon herself in tweets, words, followers, commenters, Facebook friends, and the legacy of Henry.

The Henry Louis Granju Memorial Scholarship Fund
via administrator James Anderson
Morgan Stanley Smith Barney
2000 Meridian Blvd., Suite 290
Franklin, TN 37067

K. Emily Bond is a freelance writer who has worked for O, The Oprah Magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, and The Village Voice. She's also written for iVillage, The New York Observer, BUST, NewYorkMagazine.com and the Huffington Post. She is the author of the travel and mommy blog Díga(Mama) and half the brains behind My BlackBerry Moment, which she created with her husband.