Keeping the dark side of a person’s life out of their obituary traditionally has been done out of respect for the deceased. Conventional wisdom says when a person is laid to rest, it’s best to lay their troubles to rest too.
But more and more families are choosing to bring the addiction that killed their sons and daughters out into the light. Even in an obituary, that small paragraph meant to celebrate, remember and honor a person’s life on earth, a family can make a powerful statement about addiction that may help others.
Parents feeling helpless after losing their child want to do something, anything that may help break the cycle of stigma and shame that fuels drug use and drives it underground. By speaking out, they hope lives can be saved and other families may be spared heartbreak.
“Emmett was a National Honor Society student who graduated from Bridgewater Raynham Regional High School in May 2014,” reads the obituary of Emmett J. Scannell, who died April 20, 2016, at the age of 20. The obituary is posted online by the Chapman, Cole & Gleason funeral home. 1
“Unfortunately he is not the first member of his class to die from substance use disorder,” the obituary reads. “Emmett was a caring, funny, smart, young man with the potential for greatness. He loved his brother and sister, biking and snowmobiling and had a smile and charm that could light up a room, but it won’t ever again because he had and died from substance use disorder.”
In fact, the phrase “substance use disorder” is mentioned seven times in the 10-paragraph obituary. It explains that Emmett had been “in recovery and sober in Alcoholics Anonymous for two years when he went off to college in late August 2014. Within six weeks, heroin came into his and our lives, stole him from us, and substance use disorder killed him in only 18 months.”
Like so many parents choosing to be open about their children dying from a drug overdose, this family saw it as a teaching moment. “You see, substance use disorder is not something to be ashamed of or hidden,” Emmett Scannell’s obit reads. “It continues to cut down our loved ones every day. Please do whatever you can to fight it so that you never have to feel what every one of us who has lost a loved one is feeling right now.”
Less than three weeks prior and just 50 miles away, a similar story unfolded with Kelsey Grace Endicott, 23, of North Andover, Mass. Kelsey “passed away April 2, 2016, from an accidental overdose,” the family wrote in the obituary, which appears online at Legacy.com and was published in the Boston Globe. 2 “For many years, she fought a heroic battle with addiction. She had been sober for almost 10 months, but her disease had a powerful hold on her. We wish she had recognized the beauty and strength everyone else saw in her. Kelsey did not want to leave this world. She yearned for a life without fear and pain, a life that would permit her to realize that the world was open for her to explore and that change was possible.”
“The disease of addiction is merciless,” reads the obituary. “It is up to us to open our minds and hearts to those who are still sick and suffering. Kelsey does not want us to cry for her. She wants us to fight for her.”
Both obituaries have been widely shared on social media.
Last year, The New York Times published a story about obituaries that label heroin as the killer. In this piece, Dr. Jeffrey A. Lieberman, chairman of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, called it “part of a trend toward a greater degree of acceptance and destigmatization about issues pertaining to mental illness, including addiction.” 3
With more and more families of fallen heroin addicts writing books, founding anti-drug abuse organizations and appearing in documentaries, there has been a shift away from shame. Even the presidential candidates are acknowledging that opioid addiction is a national epidemic.
Enter “heroin” as a keyword into Legacy.com, one of the nation’s largest obituary databases, and there were four obituaries posted in the last week of April 2016 alone that talk about heroin leading to the death of a loved one.
“Sam wasn’t just an addict, he was a person with a heroin addiction, a sickness, a disease,” reads the obituary of Sam Stevens of Maine. 4 “When the world starts caring that this disease is killing all types of people young and old, perhaps things will change. Until then, they leave behind family and children that love them and want nothing more for them than to be well.”
The family of Travis Colton of Pennsylvania wrote he had “battled a demon for roughly the past seven years. She made him feel inspiration for only a brief moment in time and then she was gone.”
The obituary goes on to explain that Travis “chased her, and she had his heart. He fought to leave her and eventually left her many times and was better, but she always made her way back into his presence, and the cycle would repeat itself. Eventually she took Travis’s life. Heroin.” 5
1. Emmett J. Scannell, 1995-2016. Chapman, Cole & Gleason Funeral Homes and Cremation Services. Retrieved April 30, 2016, from http://www.ccgfuneralhome.com/obit/emmett-j.-scannell
2. Kelsey Grace Endicott. Conte Funeral Home. Retrieved April 30, 2016, from http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/bostonglobe/obituary.aspx?pid=179523724
3. Obituaries shed Euphemism to Chronicle Toll of Heroin. (2015, July 11). The New York Times. Retrieved April 30, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/12/us/obituaries-shed-euphemisms-to-confront-heroins-toll.html?_r=0
4. Sam Stevens. Legacy.com. Retrieved April 30, 2016, from http://obituaries.bangordailynews.com/obituaries/bdnmaine/obituary.aspx?n=Sam-Stevens&pid=179810434
5. Travis Colton. Legacy.com. Retrieved April 30, 2016, from http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/triblive-valley-news-dispatch/obituary.aspx?n=Travis-A-Colton&pid=179835379
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Integrated Treatment of Substance Abuse & Mental Illness