Professor Melinda Papaccio, of the English and CORE departments at Seton Hall University, lost her eldest son to addiction on Sept. 22, 2018. On Thursday, Nov. 9, she got to celebrate not only his life but the lives of many others who have fallen to the same disease when the Black Poster Project was brought to Seton Hall’s University Center, the epicenter of student activity on campus.
The Black Poster Project is a traveling exhibit and a silent memorial created by Dee Gillen in 2019, following the death of her son Scott. The exhibition features nearly 700 black posters decorated with photos and messages detailing the lives of those who have passed due to substance addiction.
Papaccio entered her son into the memorial a few years ago, and since then, has attended some of the displays. She said she “was always impressed at the power of the experience.” For a number of reasons, she felt
inclined to bring this experience to the campus community.
As a result of her experience with her son’s struggle with addiction, Papaccio became conscious of the ways stigma and misunderstanding about the disease can harm those seeking recovery. Thus, she yearned to bring
greater awareness of the disease to her students.
At the same time, she saw that so many of the texts she was required to teach in her Journey of Transformation course touched on the issue of attachment, an alternative way of describing addiction.
“It affects [the] body, mind, but most devastatingly, spirit,” Papaccio explained.
Even before the death of her son, Papaccio joined a fledgling ministry to provide spiritual assistance to the addicted and their families, the ITHIRST Initiative, developed by an alumna of Seton Hall’s Immaculate Conception Seminary, Keaton Douglas.
She created a curriculum in which her students engage in conversation with members of the recovery community to learn about the unique nature of the disease and to develop empathy for that kind of suffering. Her pupils are required to attend Zoom meetings with recovery experts across the nation.
“I wanted them to encounter people who are struggling with this disease and to see them in a very human way,” she said. “This year, I wanted to add The Black Poster Project Silent Memorial to that Journey curriculum.”
"It was a powerful experience for my students who really touched my heart with the effort they put into helping with the set up of the memorials and the breakdown afterward. They also had to walk through the memorial and write about it in a paper for the course,” Papaccio said.
Papaccio said she felt it was crucial for students to understand how to communicate and help those who are
struggling with addiction.
“We must be willing to walk with them and to encourage them on their journey because people who are struggling want to be freed of these chains,” Papaccio said. “Maybe we can’t solve the problem, but one thing I’m grateful for is that I didn’t turn away from my son even though I couldn’t save him.”
“The Black Poster Project Silent Memorial speaks so eloquently to the hearts of those who are grieving, but it
also provides a chance for those who have little or no experience of this disease to see that the faces on these posters look like people they might know, people no different than themselves, except in their substance
addiction," she said.
Papaccio worked with Christopher Aurilio, the Director of Production/Facilities for the College of Communication and the Arts who suggested the University Center lounge area as the memorial’s location. As it turned out, people were walking through the display on their way to other places and often stopped to take it all in. Erin Demczyszn, from Seton Hall’s Museum Studies Graduate Program, was pivotal in helping to get logistical matters right.
Upon arrival, Gillen and the three other women who worked alongside her, took a few moments to remain present in the space, Papaccio explained.
Gillen, who calls all of the souls represented on these posters her "beloveds," stood in the lounge and said: "It's
going to come to me how they want to be shown." For her and her team, this is a spiritual experience and a labor of great love.
Supplementary displays complemented the memorial posters. A specific presentation was created for those in the armed services who died as a result of substance addiction. Papaccio said the display aroused curiosity
within the community, with many people asking if the memorial was curated in observance of Veteran’s Day.
“No, they died from addiction,” she responded. “The armed services have a significant problem. We don’t talk about it and we need to.”
These physical representations of the lives lost are crucial to the understanding of the complexities of addiction, Papaccio said.
“Often [society] assumes that addiction is the result of a person’s excessive partying, and it can happen that way,” she said. “But more often it starts from that moment when a person feels a pain they’ve been feeling for years is suddenly gone for a little while. Sometimes that happens in a social setting, but very often it happens as a result of prescribed medications, as was the case with my son.”
“Who doesn’t not want to feel pain?” Papaccio continued. “We [just] all don’t encounter relief from it in a drug.”
“What happens to someone in a substance addiction is perhaps the most dramatic and tragic and visible manifestation of what we all suffer from and that is the attachment to something that we in some way feel is going to help us with pain,” she added.
The photos displayed encouraged attendees to identify the similarities between themselves and the souls lost. The necessity for the humanization of addicts is the cornerstone of the Black Poster Project.
“It’s so important to put a face on the disease,” Papaccio said. “The Black Poster Project helps us to see these people in their best moments because those are the pictures we offer to be on the poster.”
Papaccio said that addiction “masks the person we know and love.”
Reflecting on her own experience with her son, she said: “Others could not see who he really was. As his mother, I did know who he really was. And yet, this disease would transform [him] in such a way that others couldn’t see [him].”
Attending the memorial brought healing to her family as her surviving daughter and son attended the memorial.
“It was a chance for them to grieve and honor and just be present to their brother in a way that they hadn’t been able to before.”
A moment of prayer was offered by Fr. Nick Sertich, Director of Campus Ministry, after which followed reflections by two members of The ITHIRST Initiative recovery community, James Manieri and Jellian Escobar.
The talks were followed by an update on the law enforcement efforts to address the drug problems in our area by DEA Agent, Daniel Pizzani and Montclair Police Lieutenant, Charles Cunningham.
As an avid member of the faith community, Papaccio said she has established a ministry in her own parish to help the addicted and their families. As part of The ITHIRST Initiative, she has taken on this mission in loving memory of her son.
She said she was glad to see that change is coming to the Catholic Church. One sign of this change occurred on Opioid Awareness Day which is Aug. 31. The Black Poster Project Silent Memorial was offered in the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Newark, where the souls were celebrated at the altar.
“I was so grateful for that,” Papaccio said.
By helping her students understand the complex nature of addiction, Papaccio hopes to see them carry these lessons into their future careers.
“Those who are going into healthcare need to understand this in a very human and multi-dimensional way. Those who are going into churches, becoming seminarians, need to open this discussion from the pulpit and ask for blessings for people who are struggling with addiction,” she said.
Megan Pitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org