Nancy Shedlo hears the word heroin and has the same thought every time.
"I think death," said Shedlo, a 64-year-old Ridley Park grandmother whose two daughters were among four family members she's lost to the drug in two years, most recently on Christmas Day 2013.
Daughter Michele Rae Carney, 46, overdosed in her home in Collingdale on June 2, 2011. Five months later, on Nov. 11, daughter Stacie Lee Burnell, 36, whose heroin addiction led her to living on the streets of Chester, was shot and killed just hours after being released from prison — presumably by a dealer she'd ripped off. Her murder remains unsolved.
For Shedlo, news of 42-year-old John Carr's heroin death on Dec. 25 was sad, but it didn't open old wounds.
"They never really close," said Shedlo. She still attends bereavement groups, including Parents of Murdered Children.
John Carr, of Linwood, was the brother of Robert Carr, Shedlo's son-in-law. The Carrs' sister, 49-year-old Deborah Conrad of Middletown, overdosed on heroin and died Nov. 1, 2013, the birthday of one of her six children.
"It's horrible," Shedlo said of the toll that heroin has had on her family.
Shedlo thinks her granddaughter Sadie Burnell, Stacie's 19-year-old daughter, said it best.
"You become invisible," she said. "There's a part of you that is always gone."
For Shedlo, it's personally been a long 20-year struggle.
"As a parent, you feel helpless. You take them to rehab, to therapy. You do all these things and they do good, for a while," she said. "That moment's choice is all it takes."
According to county authorities, 284 residents died from heroin between 2007 and 2012.
Last week, Delaware County Examiner Dr. Fredric N. Hellman said incidents of heroin-related deaths are plateauing in the county. According to Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan, there is no indication that use is leveling off.
At Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church in Darby, the Rev. Joseph Corley said they've dedicated a shrine and painting of "Our Lady of Light" to the many parishioners battling addictions, as well as "a good number of others" who have died.
Shedlo said daughter Michele, a 1983 graduate of Chester High School and a mother of two, battled a drug addiction for at least 20 years. She was 36 when she began using heroin.
Recalling one of many jailhouse conversations with Stacie, Shedlo said, "Stacie told me she was 12 or 13 when Michele gave her her first marijuana joints."
Shedlo still wonders if that is what set off Stacie who, by 17, was an emancipated minor.
"She was always attracted to the night life," Shedlo said of her youngest of five children.
Stacie, a 1993 graduate of Ridley High School and a mother of one, was 26 when she started using heroin, according to Shedlo.
Over the years, Shedlo attended countless support meetings, including Nar Anon and Al Anon. She sat through hours of mandatory education before she could even visit her daughters during their many stays in rehabilitation facilities.
Shedlo said she came to understand the chemical dependency that results from certain drug use. She also came to a personal acceptance — and even established some hard boundaries.
"I did tough love," said Shedlo. "I did detachment love."
But she never stopped loving her daughters. She never stopped hoping for them. And she never stopped praying for them.
"There were days I would say, 'God, they are your child, too. You take care of them today,'" Shedlo said. Particularly on those mornings she would see Stacie walking the streets.
"I would see Stacie on Morton Avenue on my way to work," said Shedlo, who works for the Chester Water Authority.
"Some days, I just drove by," Shedlo said. On those days when she did stop, the only help Stacie would accept was a hot meal.
"I always wanted her life to be better more than she did," Shedlo said.
In and out of jail as many as six times, Stacie had a rap sheet dating back to 2002, according to her mother and online court records.
Shedlo last saw Stacie on Nov. 10, 2011. Stacie had just been released from the county prison.
"We picked her up at 2:30 in the afternoon and we brought her back to the house," Shedlo said, adding Stacie left the house around 7 that night to meet friends.
"She didn't want to stay at the house," Shedlo said.
According to police, her body was found on the shoreline of the Delaware River, at Highland Avenue and Seaport Drive, shortly after 8 a.m. on Nov. 11, 2011. The Delaware County Medical Examiner ruled her death a homicide by multiple gunshot wounds.
"We never knew what time she died," Shedlo said. "When you are in Stacie's world, you get hooked with bad people, a bad life. Because of that life, Stacie died."
When she was first told about Stacie's death, Shedlo's initial thought was heroin.
"I had already accepted that as a possibility," she said. "I knew I would get a call to come and ID her. I felt it for 10 years."
It got to the point that she turned off the ringer to her phone every night before bed.
"I didn't want the call," she said.
When she found out what had happened to her daughter, Shedlo said a part of her felt oddly relieved.
Alcohol and pills were found in her system, but no heroin.
"Maybe this time, she was really going to try and stay clean," Shedlo thought at the time.
She still wonders.
"It is little solace," she said, "but it is some."
When she was most "frazzled" with dealing with Stacie over the years, Shedlo said Michele, the oldest of the siblings, would always step in. "Michele was very knowledgeable about this," Shedlo said, referring to the effects of drugs, as well as user manipulation. In addition to working as a waitress, Michele had been an addictions counselor at Bowling Green Rehab in Kennett Square, Shedlo said.
"She would always tell me when Stacie was trying to get over on me," Shedlo said.
Shedlo suspects her daughters' early stories are not unlike countless others.
"That is, they don't go straight to heroin," she said. "It's built up, from recreational drug use."
At some point, Shedlo said, "Someone is there (with heroin) and says, 'Try this." And that it is."
Based on what she's learned from awareness groups and other education, Shedlo said, "I think you will die within 10 years of doing heroin."
While her daughters each battled drugs for half of their lives or more, Shedlo said their choices over the years led them down very different paths.
To look at Stacie, "She was the image that everyone has of a heroin addict, but not Michele," Shedlo said. "Neither was Rob's sister. She was raising six children, keeping a nice home.
"That is what is so dumbfounding about all this."
Shedlo said John Carr had spent most of his adult life in jail. While he was incarcerated, he would participate in the drug and alcohol programs.
"He was out of jail no more than six months when he overdosed," she said. "He was at his mother's home in Middletown."
Though she had a longtime problem, Deborah Conrad never sought help, Shedlo said.
"Her children found her in her bed," she said.
Looking back, Shedlo said, "Michele was a wonderful girl. . Even when she was using, she was still functioning. She had long periods of sobriety."
Shedlo referred to Michele as a "Mirmont alum," referring to the Mirmont Treatment Center in Media, a non-profit drug and alcohol addiction treatment facility.
When Michele relapsed in 2010, she was arrested in Ridley Township for drug possession. Because she was already on probation for a previous possession with the intent to deliver offense in Upland in 2008, Shedlo said she wound up serving two years in the State Correction Institution at Muncy. When she was released from Muncy, she went to live in a halfway house affiliated with Gaudenzia in Philadelphia.
"She got her (waitressing) job back and started a job at a second restaurant," her mother said. "She was making meetings. She was so active . it blew my mind when she relapsed again."
Shedlo recalled a conversation with Michele during her last recovery, after a physical she had detected a heart murmur.
"Mom, I know I will die," Shedlo said her daughter told her.
Michele was at work when, Shedlo said, "She made a decision and it cost her life."
She was found in her apartment by her 18-year-old son, then a senior at Academy Park High School.
"He came home to find the door locked from the inside," Shedlo said.
When he got in, Shedlo said, "His mother was slumped over the kitchen table, with vomit down the front of her clothes."
Shedlo was at work when the phone rang at 2:20 p.m. It was a Thursday.
"Mom-mom, mommy is dead," she heard her grandson say.
Engaged at the time of her death, Shedlo said, "It was a happy time for her. She had a future."
At her funeral, Shedlo said she was approached by many people who had known Michele either from rehab or prison.
"They told me how much Michele had helped them," Shedlo said. "She helped so many people but she couldn't help herself, at times."
The sisters are buried with their grandmother in Lawn Croft Cemetery.
Shedlo has no answer for the drug problem. She doesn't get the lure.
"Yes, you can say, 'just don't do it' and you put yourself in that position," she said.
But that doesn't solve the problem.
When she retires this summer, Shedlo said she wants to help young girls in recovery.
"If I had money, I would have a recovery house for young girls just out jail. Some have nowhere to go," she said.
Today, Sadie Burnell lives with Shedlo.
"She is happy and well-adjusted and that's all I care about," the grandmother said.
Shedlo said her other children repeatedly tried to help their sisters. But those doors closed after repeated disappointments.
"I understood that," Shedlo said.
Other family members also stepped in, including son-in-law Leonard McDevitt Jr., police chief in Darby Township. And over the years, Chester Police Capt. Joseph Massi, a longtime family friend, also tried to intervene, especially with Stacie, whom he knew since she was a little girl.
"He would try to talk some sense into her," Shedlo said. "She would listen, and be sincere, but it would never last for long."
Shedlo said McDevitt and Massi are her heroes.
When she heard that Massi's nephew, 27-year-old David John Massi II, of Upper Chichester, overdosed on a mix of drugs including heroin Jan. 27, 2013, Shedlo said, "I knew exactly what he was going through.
"It's a club you don't want to be in."
Shedlo said she supports pending legislation to give immunity to drug users who get medical attention for someone who overdoses, an effort spearheaded by Massi's wife, Lynne.
"Anything to help save a life," Shedlo said.
For the Massi family, sharing their story has been a roller coaster of emotions.
"If we can save one life, it's all been worth it," Lynne Massi said.