LEICESTER — Kris Francoeur can write for hours at a time and have fun doing it as her three published romance novels show, but writing about the death of her son was a different matter.
“If I was going to do it, it needed to be done as well as humanly possible,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “I can write fiction for eight hours straight and just have fun; this, every page had emotional weight, and so it was a much more exhausting process. It took time, and going back and looking at things again, and having incredible editors … they both kept pushing on me. If you’re going to write about what it’s like to lose a child, you have to do it wholeheartedly, you can’t gloss over it. And so it was a long process.”
“Of Grief, Garlic, and Gratitude,” published by Morgan James Publishing, took 2½ years of concentrated writing effort to finish, Francoeur said. The book sprang from a long series of Facebook posts she’d started several months after her son Sam died.
“We had known he was struggling with mental health issues. We had known there was substance abuse going on,” she said. “We didn’t honestly know how bad it had gotten. He was, at the time of his death, seemingly on an upswing. He was getting help, he had a great job; he had just been hired at Middlebury College and things seemed to be going pretty well. And then he died of an overdose at his grandparents house.”
Sam Francoeur died Oct. 9, 2013. After his death, his mother began posting to Facebook about gratitude.
“And in the hell of losing him, I started, as a way of surviving, posting about what I was thankful for each day,” Francoeur said. “I started the day after his service. Over time, those posts grew and grew, and as people responded to them, people we did and didn’t know responded to them, people started suggesting that I turn them into a book. And as I went back and pulled the archive to look at them, we don’t usually go back and look at our social media posts that often, I could see this sort of path that was very clear when you looked at it all the way through, that we had talked about gratitude, farming and Sam’s absolute love for everybody he met. And it turned into a book.”
“Of Grief, Garlic, and Gratitude” is now available as an ebook. It comes out May 20 in paperback.
The Facebook posts that formed the seed for the book helped Francoeur develop and practice what she calls “conscious gratitude.”
“To me it’s the idea of making a decision to, however often a person chooses, to consciously and with focus reflect on what has happened that day, that week, for which they can be grateful,” she said. Sometimes she’s grateful for big things, like the health of her first grandson, born to her daughter, Amy, and sometimes she’s grateful for small things, like tasty roast beets from the garden.
“And by forcing myself into that practice, it made my brain stop its constant negative loop of thoughts,” she said.
Francoeur is the principal at Middlebury Union Middle School and was an educator in Rutland City for many years. She said her son’s story has its roots in Rutland and Rutland County, which has taken the right approach to the opioid crisis.
“One of things we have admired about Rutland County and in particular Rutland City is, there has not been the ‘we’re going to pretend we don’t have this problem.’ Rutland City has openly admitted we have a drug problem and not saying it’s been solved, yet, but it’s not pretending it’s somebody else’s problem, and I don’t think that’s the case in all counties around here,” she said. Sam died from fentanyl, she said.
Fentanyl is a powerful opioid that officials have said is at the cause of many an opioid overdose.
“There were three fentanyl deaths in Addison County in the six weeks leading up to his death,” Francoeur said. “There is no mention of those three deaths anywhere in the press or anywhere else. We only know that because the medical examiner told us. If we had known that fentanyl patches presented a problem, they would’ve have been locked up. We, as a family, were very careful, anything that could be a problem had been moved under lock and key.”
Four months after Sam’s death, then-governor Peter Shumlin dedicated his entire State of the State speech to the opioid crisis.
“The first time I ever heard that word (fentanyl) was the night he died,” said Paul Francoeur, Sam’s father. “When they literally pulled it out of his mouth was the first time I even heard that word.”
Kris Francoeur said part of her motivation for writing the book came from the negativity and ill-will people with drug addiction are shown, often on social media.
“At the end of the day, love is the most import thing there is and how we treat other people, creatures, the Earth, that love is what is most important,” she said. “Also, though here was a kid who died of an opioid overdose, and we as a society still talk about those with addiction or substance abuse issues in derogatory terms. Sam had these issues and yet, 5½ years after his death people still come up to us to talk about the love he showed them. What has lived on is his love. If talking about him and talking about how he died puts a human face on substance issues, then his death won’t have been in vain.”
That they would be open and honest about their son’s death was a choice the couple made early on.
“Kris and I had the discussion right when Sam first died,” Paul Francoeur said. “We literally looked at each other and told each other, we have a choice here, we can crumple up in a little ball and sit in a corner and not come out, or we can deal with this and try to figure out what good can come from this horrible thing.”
Kris Francoeur said she hopes the book will be well received, but she already has the approval of those whose opinions matter most to her, people who knew Sam. She said his circle of friends have become family, checking in on Sam’s kin from time to time, even his brother, Ben, who’s attending college in Burlington.
What does garlic have to do with Sam Francoeur?
“The last six months before Sam died, he worked on an organic farm in Brandon, Neshobe Farms. And he absolutely loved it,” his mother said. “Farming, working the earth, brought him peace. And one of the things he thought was the coolest was the garlic. You put a clove of garlic in the dirt in the fall, mulch it and in the spring you had a head of garlic, and he thought this was just a miracle.”
Sam wasn’t the sort of person who would have wanted his funeral to feature flowers like gladiolus, his mother said, and his farm friends knew this.
“The farm brought things he had loved to grow. They brought garlic, they brought squashes and they brought hot peppers,” she said. “After the service, they gave us the garlic. So we, a week after he died, it was the first time we got to do anything by ourselves in that time. We planted garlic that he had grown, and we kept it going. We are still growing Sam’s garlic.”