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Such sweet sorrow: A growing number of families lament addiction through obituaries

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What do you want your obituary to say?

That’s something most of us don’t give a lot of thought to, especially when we’re so busy living life to its fullest that we don’t stop to comprehend its end. When you’re busy dying, however, the words that sum up your existence bear some contemplation.

Drug addicts don’t give much thought to anything besides the overwhelming need to use and the all-consuming chase to get more drugs, but for those who aren’t considering treatment at a drug and alcohol rehab to deal with their problem, they face one of three likely scenarios — “the bitter ends,” as they’re referred to in the recovery community: jails, institutions and death.

The United States, according to World Health Rankings, is fifth out of 183 countries for drug use mortality rates, with 100 people dying from drug overdoses every day in this country. Those rates are at an all-time high and have more than tripled since 1990, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the crisis has reached epidemic proportions — so much so that family members and loved ones are choosing to no longer remain silent when the addicts in their lives take their final breaths.

For many years, addiction was a mark of shame, and those who suffered from it were considered weak-willed or immoral individuals who were victims of their own undoing. Obituaries lamented loss and detailed the backgrounds of those who passed, but the overwhelming shadow over their lives was seldom mentioned. In recent years, however, there’s been a growing trend to erase that stigma through an honest dialog in the obituaries of the fallen: “The truth is, there is no ‘other’ kind of people. There are only people, and all of us – rich and poor, white and black, suburban and urban and rural — know someone whose life is vulnerable to addiction,” writes Stephen Segal, an editor for the online obituary website Legacy.com.

Around the nation, a number of obituaries in recent years have appeared in publications that don’t shade the truth:

  • Jonathan Ashby Lord, an Atlanta resident who died in April 2017: “Despite Ashby's valiant struggle to overcome his drug addiction, the scourge of myotonic dystrophy coupled with addiction became a barrier to his creativity and athleticism.”
  • Timothy Ethridge, a Doraville, Ga., resident who died in July 2017: “Tim started taking drugs and alcohol when he was in high school, and this had a profound influence on his ability to control himself as an adult. We tried countless times to help by admitting him to treatment centers and having him detained at the Dekalb Addiction Center, but to no avail. Eventually, we all realized there was no way to help him and he could not help himself. We watched in horror as his health declined to the point at which he could barely walk, but somehow was still witty, funny, and full of life. He was exceptionally bright, outgoing, easy to talk to, and had many friends until his addiction destroyed everything he had …”
  • Joseph Robert Fowler, whose parents live in Gainesville, Ga., died in September 2017; in his obituary, his family writes, “Due to a heroin overdose, the light of a funny, intelligent, kind-hearted spirit was taken from our lives by a senseless and relentless drug. Our family asks that you realize that no one is immune to the epidemic of opioid and heroin addiction that encumbers our culture.  We fought as hard as we knew how to help Joseph, and our constant hope of his recovery dashed so senselessly is devastating. We must fight hard against these drugs, prevalent everywhere, because they defile the brain’s ability to make sound decisions in order to save one’s self.”
  • Madelyn Ellen Linsenmeir, a 30-year-old native of Burlington, Vt., who died in the hospital last year while in police custody. Her obituary was a heartbreaking portrait of a vibrant mother, sister and daughter who was lost in the wastelands of addiction: “During the past two years especially, her disease brought her to places of incredible darkness, and this darkness compounded on itself, as each unspeakable thing that happened to her and each horrible thing she did in the name of her disease exponentially increased her pain and shame.”
  • Andrew Oswald III, a New Jersey resident who died in January 2017 of a heroin overdose and whose family bared their souls in the final story of his life’s end: “The day Andrew died, we died along with him. We will miss him every day for the rest of our lives. The pain of his death is heartbreaking and intolerable, which is why stories like Andrew's should not be ignored.”
  • Reghan Michelle Berry of South Carolina, who lost her life at 22: “"Heroin told her, 'I can make you feel accepted, I can make you feel alright, I can make you feel worthy, I can make you feel normal, I make you feel loved and I can make you feel nothing and make you feel like everything will be okay.' What it didn't tell her was how it would devastate her family and tear it apart, take her job and leave her penniless, take her home and make her homeless. How it would take her sparkle and smile, how it would take her humor and how it would take and take and take until it took her life."
  • Michael “Seth” Morgan, 24, of North Carolina, who managed to put together 106 days of clean time before a relapse took him: “Seth fought hard with everything he had but in the end, after 106 days clean, he relapsed and lost the battle. Heroin took his life in an accidental overdose."

These obituaries are a sobering reminder of the fate that awaits those caught up in the grips of addiction … but there is a better way of life available to those who seek it. Addiction treatment can be the first steps on a new journey away from those “bitter ends,” and calling one today can make the difference in truly living life or planning for a near-certain demise that will leave family members and loved ones facing a soul-crushing dilemma: how to document a life cut short by a scourge that can be arrested by the light of recovery.