No Longer a Family Secret: Obituaries Shine a Light on Addiction

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Drug overdoses were once kept hidden behind closed doors. But as the opioid epidemic spreads, more and more families are sharing the truth about their loved one’s use, addiction, and death ⎼ in hopes of helping others who are struggling.

One of those individuals aiming to break down the stigma that surrounds addiction is Kate O’Neill, who penned a heartbreaking obituary about her sister Madelyn, who lost her battle with addiction back in October. In the now viral obituary, O’Neill talks about Madelyn’s beautiful voice, her charisma, and her relentless love for family. She also shares Madelyn’s lifelong struggle with opiates and how despite her immense desire to stay sober for her son, Madelyn’s disease eventually took her.

“To some, Maddie was just a junkie — when they saw her addiction, they stopped seeing her,” O’Neill writes, urging those who read the obituary judgmentally to educate themselves about the disease. She goes on to say, “Chances are very good that someone you know is struggling with it, and that person needs and deserves your empathy and support.”

However, the choice to write an honest obituary isn’t easy. When 23-year-old, Andrew Oswald, died from a heroin overdose early last year, his parents wrestled with what to tell others. “I felt like I would be outing my son,” said his mother, Stephanie Oswald. Ultimately, his parents decided that sharing their son’s story could save lives. Since his death, his family has continued to spread the message that addiction is a disease that can happen to anyone and that no one plans to be an addict.

The brutal candor seen in obituaries and heard in eulogies has now spread to social media posts. When Brandi Nishnick’s 19-year-old nephew Gunner died from an overdose last month, she went on Facebook with his story to warn others of the dangers of experimenting with prescription pills. In the Facebook post, which has been shared close to a million times, Nishnick says it’s important to tell Gunner’s story for three reasons:

  1. Gunner was an amazing kid who deserved the life he won’t get the chance to live so I owe him his story to be told.
  2. I want to clear up any misconceptions and give the facts.
  3. Gunner’s story could very well save your child’s life so please, share his story.

Nishnick goes on to share Gunner’s last moments. The night he died, he was home playing video games and eating pizza with a friend. Both teens took a pill they believed to be Percocet, fell asleep, and never woke up. The family would later learn the pill was laced with a high amount of fentanyl, an opioid 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Gunner, a star athlete, had no history of drug use. “One bad choice, one stupid minor mistake was all it took,” Nishnick writes.

While it can be difficult for families who have not been exposed to substance abuse to imagine their loved one becoming addicted, Gunner’s story shines a light on the dangers of experimenting with drugs, even just once.

Opening up about a loved one’s addiction puts individuals in a vulnerable situation. It opens them up to judgement and criticism from friends, family, and even strangers. But that is exactly why it is so powerful when families honor their loved ones with honesty. Pretending that addiction is not happening does not make it go away. It only makes those struggling feel an increased level of shame. How we talk about addiction and those it affects is important. Stigma prevents many from reaching out for help. Letting those struggling with addiction know that their disease is not a moral shortcoming that they should be ashamed of could be the first step in saving their lives.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Mountainside can help.
Click here or call (888) 833-4676 to speak with one of our addiction treatment experts.