Before my ex-husband Bob died, I never gave much thought to who wrote the obituaries I read in the local newspaper. I did, however, suspect a faithful codependent had lied by omission whenever a death notice stated their loved one “died suddenly,” “died unexpectedly,” or “had succumbed to their illness.”
When substance abuse is the cause of death, it is not sudden. And it is definitely not unexpected. The only truth in that death notice is the deceased did succumb to their illness—the disease called addiction.
Denial is the survival instinct that kicks in to soothe the grief of those left behind. Rather than stating how we failed to stop our loved from dying of a drug overdose, or cirrhosis of the liver, we continue to mask the shame and blame.
After my ex-husband passed away, the funeral director asked me, “What do you want his obituary to say?”
I was stunned. Me? How could I write an honest obit when guilt taunted every pen stroke? All I could think of was, why didn’t I do more to stop this from happening?
My ex-husband’s obituary disclosed his age, place of employment, and his survivors. There was no mention of cause of death, it simply read, Died February 4th in Ohio. We, his family, never revealed he had surrendered his driver’s license because of three DUI’s. Not having wheels hadn’t stopped him. Bob continued his daily one-mile walk to the local bar. But on Friday, February 4, he collapsed and died steps from the swinging door of his favorite watering hole.
Bob’s indistinguishable obit assured us the family secret would remain our secret. Like most families, we hid our truths. But the truth is forever written on the hearts of the enablers who loved their addict to death.
International Overdose Awareness Day is celebrated annually on August 31. Events like this indicate there is a culture shift to openness. According to the IOAD website, the aim of the sponsoring organization is to raise awareness of overdose and reduce the stigma of a drug-related death. They also acknowledge the grief felt by families and friends by remembering those who have met with death or permanent injury as a result of drug overdose. www.overdoseday.com
Through this group and social media, conscious awareness can be shared by the survivors of drug addicts. The truth can be spoken instead of hidden. More and more obituaries are openly listing the cause of death as “drug overdose.”
Here are excerpts from two recent death notices.
Molly Alice Parks, March 13, 1991 – April 16, 2015
There were promising signs, her family says, that Molly Parks had begun to reclaim her life. She’d been in and out of rehab three times in the last year, but after the most recent stint, in Novem- ber, Parks landed a job delivering pizza in Manchester, N.H. She worked 55 hours a week, trying to save enough money to pay off a used Buick she’d recently purchased using a tax return. After years of battling addictions — first alcohol, then prescription pills, and later heroin — family members hoped she had finally wrestled con- trol of her life away from her demons. “She was here last Monday and she looked great,” her father, Tom Parks, told The Post from his home in Saco, Maine. “But it’s so hard, of course, and she got sucked back in.” Four days after visiting home, her body was dis- covered in the bathroom at her job. There was a needle stuck in her arm. Molly Alice Parks was dead at 24. www.washingtonpost.com/ news/morning-mix/wp/2015/04/22/why-this-father-didnt-hide-his- daughters-heroin-overdose-in-her-obituary/
Clay William Shephard, November 25, 1992 – May 17, 2015
Our charismatic and beautiful son and brother died Sunday morning from a drug overdose. Clay was the youngest of four children, raised in a loving home in Apex with two brothers and one sister. Outwardly, Clay looked like he had it all: Intelligence, confidence, athletic ability, height, beautiful blue eyes, broad smile, fantastic wit, and the ability to engage and forge a relationship with anyone. Inwardly, Clay was sensitive and had struggles that he hid well from his close and clannish family.
We loved Clay with all of our hearts, but we now know that was not enough to shield him from the world. This note isn’t an attempt to assign blame for Clay’s death. It’s not to vent our anger and frustration at a world where drugs can be ordered and delivered through the internet. We write this obituary in hope that it may provide an insight to those that need to change their behavior one night at a time. www.legacy.com/obituaries/newsobserver/obituary.aspx?pid=174897814
This year, the International Overdose Awareness Day theme is Rethink and Remember. One mother I spoke to on the subject of public disclosure admitted she does not remember if she put anything in the paper when her son overdosed. “When I think of the first year after he died, it’s all a blur. I did nothing for a year, and can’t remember anything but playing Farmville which required zero thought process. I was more in total shock and disbelief than anything else. AL-Anon taught me way before I lost him that it wasn’t my fault, and I had nothing to feel shameful about.”
Thinking back over my marriage, I remember believing I had the power to stop my husband from drinking. My manipulative schemes proved me powerless. Over those long fruitless years, I also learned that drug overdose does not always mean sudden. It was decades before his “overdose” claimed his life.
Drug overdose is a lifetime of drug abuse that not so suddenly went beyond the limits.
Drug overdose is an alcoholic whose heart, lungs, liver, and brain cried, “Enough.”
Drug overdose is depression.
Drug overdose can be intentional.
Drug overdose is when the addict decided he or she could take no more.
Drug overdose can never be understood by those of us who entertain different demons.
Drug overdose doesn’t always mean, I can’t believe this happened.
Drug overdose means, it finally happened.
Drug overdose strips the survivors of the family secret.
Drug overdose introduces sister shame and brother blame.
Drug overdose demands the survivors hide.
Drug overdose may jolt the ones left behind into reality. Or not.
On August 31, IODA wants to spread the message that the tragedy of overdose death is preventable. They are asking everyone to wear silver to show their support.
I will be wearing my silver hoop earrings, and a simple silver chain. What piece of silver will you wear in the hopes of enlightening those still living with addiction?
Diane Jellen has worked at several treatment facilities in PA, FL, and the School District of Palm Beach County Alternative Education Department. Diane is the award-winning author of My Resurrected Heart: A Codependent’s Journey to Healing, available at www.dianejellen.com.