On a Sunday afternoon last April, the moment Larry Lord had dreaded for roughly two decades finally happened. His wife, Peggy, found their 35-year-old son Ashby no longer breathing in the basement of their ranch home on Sandy Springs’ Mount Paran Road. She tried performing CPR and called 911. But nothing the paramedics did could revive Ashby after a heroin overdose.

Larry was devastated. Like many family members after a death, he faced the task of writing an obituary so that newspapers and the funeral home could inform their loved ones. Larry, an architect, considered himself a problem-solver. Usually, he could sketch out new doors or windows to make design problems disappear. He’d written obituaries, too, most recently for his first wife and Ashby’s mother, Shannon, after she died from complications of cancer. But the circumstances of Ashby’s life posed difficult questions in how to talk about his death.

Larry and Peggy Lord display a childhood photo of their sons Ashby and Hunter. Ashby, at right, died of a heroin overdose last year. (Max Blau)

Euphemisms are a tradition of sorts for overdose victims. Their obituaries say that they left this world or entered eternal rest while glossing over how it happened. The reasons vary from not speaking ill of the dead to a fear that it might reflect poorly on the living.

“For many years, you never saw the word ‘addiction’ in an obit,” says Dr. Frances Levin, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University Medical Center. “That’s because of the stigma related to addictive disorders.”

But with opioid deaths becoming increasingly common — roughly 50,000 people fatally overdosed in 2016 alone — more families are calling out addiction by its name to break the cycle of the stigma and shame associated with the disease. Like the well-worn tactic of holding a protest sign at a rally, the obituary has turned into a form of activism against the stigma of addiction.

These obituaries include words of caution or advice. One for a 22-year-old Pennsylvania woman who died of a heroin overdose in 2016 reads: “The disease of addiction thrives in darkness and must be defeated in the light.” Another, written in 2015 for a 24-year-old Ohio man killed by heroin, offers: “They used to say it takes a community to raise a child. Today, we need to say that it takes a community to battle addiction. Someone you know is battling addiction; if your ‘gut instinct’ says something is wrong, it most likely is.”

“I believe in honest expression,” Larry said in a recent interview at the family home. “You read about someone who died. You want to know. It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t write about Ashby’s addiction.”

Hours after Ashby died, Larry cleared off a space on his cluttered dining room table and started to write. He thought about how Ashby had grappled with the fear that myotonic dystrophy, an incurable genetic disease he’d inherited from his mother, might undercut his boldest ambitions. He started smoking pot as a student at the Galloway School in Buckhead, which later derailed his short-lived college soccer career, and spent his life cycling between using opioids and doing time in treatment.

An excerpt of Ashby Lord’s obituary as it appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Larry wrote an opening line that went straight to the point: “Jonathan Ashby Lord, 35, died at home in Atlanta April 9, 2017, after a long struggle with myotonic dystrophy and drug addiction.”

From there, Larry was faced with tougher decisions about the stark details. Do you mention the sight of Ashby’s cold, white lips on that fatal Sunday? Do you talk about the failed rehab attempts? Do you gloss over the worst parts or mention it all to warn others? Larry’s wife, Peggy, urged him to be as candid as he felt comfortable doing.

She remembered her sister’s response after learning how Ashby died: “Didn’t they go to church as children? Ashby wouldn’t have a drug problem if he’d come to church.” Peggy understood that talking about his disease as if it was a heart attack might have the power to demystify the nature of addiction. She felt the obituary might help others be more open — and if they were more open, perhaps they could work together to press for more research into the disease.

Larry cranked out a first draft. He asked Peggy and his brother to give it a quick read. He’d gotten off to a good start, they told him. But what if he mentioned more about the good times to capture Ashby’s full humanity? Larry agreed. Together, they added more details about how he loved playing with animals and talking to strangers.

“Despite Ashby’s valiant struggle to overcome his drug addiction, the scourge of myotonic dystrophy coupled with addiction became a barrier to his creativity and athleticism,” Larry wrote. “Fortunately, this never interfered with Ashby’s love of animals, for which he had a special magnetism, or his particular talent for making friends with a wide variety of people.”

From Brookhaven to Gainesville, other Georgia families have joined the Lords in acknowledging the role addiction played in a loved one’s death.

Steve Ethridge hoped that writing about his younger brother’s death might lead to further research. On July 5, 2017, Timothy Ethridge was found dead in his Doraville residence. In the obituary, his family decided to write about how they had “watched in horror as his health declined” due to his alcohol and drug addiction. Steve, the author of the obituary, said the news should be out in “plain view” to show how bad addiction could get.

“We decided to talk about it to help other people,” said his mother Edna, a resident of Brookhaven. “It ran in the [Atlanta Journal-Constitution]. I think it definitely helped others.”

That was the hope of Kathy Fowler, a former elementary school teacher with DeKalb County Schools, after discovering that her 31-year-old son Joseph overdosed on heroin this past September. Joseph, a former student at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College in Dunwoody, had stayed clean for at eight months thanks to a recovery program. He’d found a job working as a cook in north Georgia.

“Due to a heroin overdose, the light of a funny, intelligent, kind-hearted spirit was taken from our lives by a senseless and relentless drug,” Kathy wrote in the obituary. “Our family asks that you realize that no one is immune to the epidemic of opioid and heroin addiction that encumbers our culture.”

A young Ashby Lord on the beach in a family photo held by his father Larry. (Max Blau)

When Larry finished Ashby’s obituary, he spoke with a minister to make sure the same sort of message would be conveyed at Ashby’s memorial service.

Later that week, everyone from childhood friends to fellow former drug users in recovery traveled to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta to say one last goodbye to Ashby. They heard his story for better and worse. Some offered Larry condolences. Others thanked him for being honest. In talking about his son’s life, they said, he might somehow save the lives of other sons and daughters still in the throes of opioid addiction.

Throughout that week, Larry says, several people had asked him, “What would you do differently?”

“That’s the one that’s the hardest to answer,” he said.

But one thing he wouldn’t change is those words in the obituary.

Coping with a Crisis: Opioid addiction in the suburbs

The combination of prescription painkillers, heroin and synthetic opioids is killing people around the nation, including within Reporter Newspapers communities. In this exclusive four-part series, we will look at how local families, nurses, prosecutors, recovering addicts and others are responding to a growing epidemic that already kills more people than cars, guns or breast cancer each year. For a local emergency department doctor’s overview of the opioid crisis, click here. To share your thoughts and stories, email editor@reporternewspapers.net.

Max Blau is an Atlanta-based journalist. His reporting has been featured on NPR, Vox, and Kaiser Health News.

One reply on “Life after death: Families turn obituaries into protests against the stigma of addiction”

  1. Thank you Max Blau…what a beautifully written in-depth piece on the personal cost of the opioid crisis. I’m grateful to Larry and Peggy Lord for speaking honestly and boldly about their precious son Ashby and I pray for all the families that have lost loved ones too early from this scourge.

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