Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Overdoses in obits: A lifting of the veil

Considerable gains have been made in the recent past to erode the stigma facing people with addiction. Science and the recovery movement have collaborated to improve public understanding about addiction as primarily a health issue. Even so, one does not have to look far to see the persistence of attitudes that fault the person with an addiction as well as their families.

Scanning addiction’s history, one finds it freighted with concealment, a silence that deepened the problem for all concerned. For decades, families and friends would go to great lengths to keep a loved one’s addiction from surfacing. At the root of this covert conduct, of course, lay stigma.

With the current opiate crisis and its pestilential number of overdose deaths, however, something very different has begun to happen. More and more families in these cases have responded with an act marked by selflessness: putting the cause of death in obituaries.

Many of the recent heroin deaths have been young adults, leaving parents with the ordeal of laying a child to rest. Some of these parents have summoned the strength to look past their heartbreak and set aside concern about stigma in hopes of sparing others from having to bury a son or daughter. In doing so, they have rejected despair.

This disclosure of overdose deaths in part reflects the depths of the opiate crisis. A parent who discloses they lost their child to an overdose knows they are in the company of thousands of others. And while overdose fatalities nationwide are unsettling, New Jersey’s drug-related deaths are three times the national average, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

A New York Times article recently took note of this change in revealing overdose as the cause of death. The article noted that obituaries of a person who died of drug use were long couched in vagaries, saying that the individual died “suddenly” or “in the home.” Now, the silence has begun to be broken. One recent obituary spoke to how widespread addiction is, urging people not to ignore the signs. The family included in their son’s obituary the following admonition: “Someone you know is battling addiction; if your ‘gut instinct’ says something is wrong, it most likely is.”

A father interviewed on NPR spoke of his reason for including his daughter’s heroin overdose in her obituary. He spoke of having read many obituaries for people in the 20’s or 30’s or 40’s, all dying abruptly. He said that doesn’t happen on this scale to people those ages, not without there being a blight of some sort.

This father said if putting the cause of her death in his daughter’s obituary saved one life, it would give him solace. That he could show such understanding amid his deep sorrow reveals how a magnanimous heart allows hope to emerge from the ashes.

By Dan Meara, Public Information Manager