Families of Overdose Victims Share Pain, Sympathy Through Obits

By Paul Gaita 07/22/15

Survivors have used obituaries as a powerful medium to express their grief in unvarnished terms.

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An article in The New York Times profiled a change in the language and emotional impact of obituaries written for the victims of heroin and other opioid overdoses.

Euphemistic wording about the deceased that gave the cause of death as “unexpected” or “at home” has been replaced by frank language that reveals both the downward spiral taken by the victim and the devastating impact of their deaths upon their families and loved ones.

In print and online newspaper editions, on social media outlets like Facebook, and even on memorial sites like legacy.com, survivors have used obituaries as a powerful medium to express their grief in honest and unvarnished terms, and to disseminate the harsh reality of their loved ones’ lives.

Memorializing her husband, 34-year-old Wade B. Pickett, Sr., who died of a heroin overdose, Tiffany Pickett wrote, “His wife is now widowed, his children fatherless and his family heartbroken ... I hope that [this obituary] might save some people from the incredible heartache we are experiencing, and help open everyone’s eyes to the extreme control and impact drugs have on not only you, but your family too.”

Cindy Gauthier-Rivera’s obituary for her brother, George, 44, offered stark testimony to her pain. “I want to scream and I want him back,” she wrote. “But not the addiction – my brother, who I lost years ago to the terrible illness of addiction.”

The personal and revealing tone of these and other obituaries can begin the healing process for many grieving families.

“When the [deceased] person was alive, they may have been enabling, and they couldn’t acknowledge it,” said Dr. Jeffrey A. Lieberman, chairman of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. “This allows them to begin the process of coming to terms with the fallibility of the family member and their own limitations in not having been able to deal with it while the person was alive.”

At the same time, families can help to break the cycle of shame and silence that often shrouds drug addiction and overdose deaths. “This is part of a trend towards a greater degree of acceptance and destigmatization about issues pertaining to mental illness, including addiction,” said Lieberman.

Gauthier-Rivera sums up the need to disseminate her truth, despite the pain she feels: “If I go, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t let anybody know what happened to my brother,’ then I’m just adding to the problem.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.