Father with His Son

Parents Come Clean About How Their Children Died

Posted on May 16th, 2016
Posted in Mental Health

Grief is a heart-rending, soul-searing experience that is a measure of the love shared between people. It has been said that the loss of a child is one of the most painful experiences to endure, regardless of the age of those involved and harder still when it comes as a result of substance abuse.

Peruse the obituaries in any newspaper and read the words that a young person died “suddenly” or “unexpectedly,” and it may be code for a drug-induced death. The family, wanting to avoid the shame and stigma of the means of their loved one’s demise, will often use that description. Only those in their inner circles may know the truth.

There is however, a trend observed in which families are taking a courageous stance and publicly declaring that their child’s life was cut short as a result of drug overdose. One such couple is Fred and Dorothy McIntosh Shuemake, whose “funny, smart, gregarious, tenacious and strong-willed teenager with gusto,” Alison died on Aug. 26, 2015. At her side was her boyfriend Luther Combs, whose parents joined the Shuemakes in making public the means of his death as well. Both were found in the early morning hours, having injected heroin.

The bereaved mother stated emphatically, “There was no hesitation. We’ve seen other deaths when it’s heroin, and the families don’t talk about it because they’re ashamed or they feel guilty. Shame doesn’t matter right now.”

A Clarion Call That Can’t Be Ignored

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin use increased 63% over the past decade. From 2002 to 2004, the annual rate of heroin use was 1.6 per 1,000 people aged 12 or older. By 2011 to 2013, that rate was 2.6 per 1,000 people.

Further, there has been a steady upswing of drug-related deaths as a result. The number of heroin overdose deaths nearly doubled between 2011 and 2013, and in 2013 more than 8,200 people died from the narcotic. Overdoses have nearly quadrupled since 2002.

Another courageous family, Cris, Valerie and Nic Fiore, lost son and brother Anthony to heroin at the age of 24. The parents have spoken out vociferously about the importance of sustained treatment for addiction. They crafted what is called Anthony’s Act, which states, “The Affordable Care Act must be amended to provide for a minimum of ninety (90) days inpatient drug or alcohol treatment up to a maximum of one hundred eighty (180) days per year at a facility certified to provide such care by the secretary of health of the state in which it is located.”

Their contention was that if their son had access to a lengthier inpatient stay, he might be alive today. Although they deeply and profoundly grieve, they are not letting his death be in vain and are tirelessly shuttling aside any remnants of shame and stigma.

Clay Shephard was a well-loved, talented and charismatic 22-year-old with his life ahead of him. It got derailed when heroin rounded the bend. His parents poignantly offered their own warning in their son’s obituary: “To all children, this note is a simple reminder that there are people who love you, with everything they have and no matter what you do — don’t be too afraid/ashamed/scared, too anything, to ask for help. To all parents, pay attention to your children and the world that revolves around them — even when the surface is calm, the water may be turbulent just beneath.”

In a recent New York Times article, stories of heroin deaths abound. Families pen obituaries that have the tone of eulogies on paper, as they acknowledge both the shadow and light sides of their loved ones. Confessional tales that take the form of warnings for other families are common.

The Benefits of Going Public

  • De-stigmatizing drug abuse
  • Shedding the veneer of secrecy that fuels addiction
  • A call to action to prevent more drug-related deaths
  • Mutual support for those who are grieving
  • Assists in the healing process
  • Catharsis that allows family members to express a myriad of emotions
  • Ameliorating a sense of helplessness

Elizabeth Sue Sleasman, 37, of Bellingham, Washington, wrote her own obituary in anticipation that one day it would be used to announce her death. It included this agonizing revelation, “You will become a thief and a liar, next you will lose your family, your “real” friends, and eventually your life. I started with marijuana and alcohol. It did not take very long for me to be so hooked on hard drugs that I could not have quit if I wanted to. Some of my closest “friends” overdosed and died; I did not quit. The light of my life, my daughter, was taken away — even then, I could not quit. “

Her epitaph ends with this haunting line, “I have quit now, but I am dead; don’t wait as long as I did, give your life another chance.” Sleasman died Aug. 6, 2013. She was 37.

The Compassionate Friends is a source of support for families who have lost loved ones.

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