A friend drew my attention to it, a young man’s obituary, a lament for a lad I had never met from a family I did not know. Nor did my friend know them; what struck him was the extraordinary candor the late teenager’s clan had showed in acknowledging the cause of death. Not “brief illness,” or “after a long struggle.” No cryptic language, no disguise of the gut-wrenching loss for anything but what it was: a drug overdose, in this instance opioids being the lethal agent. And a brief and obviously heartfelt wish, and a prayer, that other parents facing the same crisis in their families could find some way to intervene, that other individuals suffering the curse of addiction would seek assistance before the near-inevitable call to the coroner.
It was not the first such obituary I had seen, actually, and likely will not be the last. More and more Arkansans, stunned by the loss of a loved one to drug or alcohol abuse, are no longer shrouding the tragedy in opaque sentences that, really, do little to obscure the circumstances of death (and such code words are quite easily deciphered). To the contrary they are frankly and courageously opening to public view the painful days and wrenching demise of a chemically-addicted relative. In so doing they open the door, perhaps, to a more enlightened approach to combating dependency. It can be talked about, discussed, shared. The secret, which rarely is that, is the burden they can lift in service to others.
Which is not to deny any survivor, any family, the privacy to which they are fully entitled at a time of intense grief. If shame and embarrassment are unjustified in a society that is coming quickly to recognize addiction as the illness it is, logic does not always govern in the aftermath of human loss. Be it shock or the sadness of grim expectation realized, pain attends. Those left behind deal with it as they will.
Yet in writing and researching the issue in recent weeks I have been privileged to bear witness to the bravery of men and women — mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and a son and a brother — who saw no purpose whatsoever in shielding the facts of a substance-related passing.
“If his life, and his death, is to have any meaning,” one father told me of his son, “then letting others know how it happened is the way to ensure it.”
The young fellow’s room contains, still, some of his effects, the stuff of any 17 year-old. “It’s not a shrine,” his mother remarked matter-of-factly, even as she conceded that it would be “some time, if ever” before she would be comfortable in putting away, or giving away, such possessions of his as were still in evidence. While resigned to his absence, she found some solace in the things he left behind. He had brightened their lives, and the promise represented by his life could be seen in his contemporaries, many of whom, male and female, had filled the church’s pews. But she and her husband knew that some of them had endangered their promise in the same fashion as had their son. So to them his parents expressed appreciation for their condolences, their presence at the memorial service — and also the hope that they not only never forget their son, but remember always what had claimed him. It needn’t happen to you, they whispered.
Some of the young people at the funeral avoided eye contact, the father related. “They knew that we knew,” he said. But he and his wife saw no more point in being angry with them than in representing their son’s death as anything but what it was — a stumble into the abyss, unplanned, unintentional, unforeseen. And wholly unnecessary.
Whether the hearse is summoned after the occasional “recreational” quest for a quick thrill backfires, or arrives as the final exit from a long, dark tunnel, the agony of those who watch it drive away is, ultimately, the same. That they are sharing their experience, breaking the silence, cannot but benefit those who are fearful that the long black vehicle is headed in their direction, and but a block away.
I returned the newspaper’s obituary page to my friend. I told him it put me in mind of a book I had just finished reading, a book that had a few references to Arkansas. It was published several years ago but retained its currency. It was in fact the lengthy obituary of a young man named Elvis. More about it later.