Battle against heroin moves to the obituary pages

Hoping to turn tragedy into help for others, a mother goes public with her daughter’s cause of death by listing it in an obituary. And that decision -- while still uncommon -- is being made by more and more families across the country.

(Delmarva Now) -- Sarah Wood, 19, died on her bedroom floor of an apparent heroin overdose days before Christmas 2016.

The Indian River graduate wasn't a problem child, according to her mother, Margret Wood. She wasn’t in and out of rehabs, she never had a run-in with the law. For all intents and purposes, Wood said, she was a "perfect kid on paper."

Sarah spent her free time playing soccer, writing poetry and engaging in progressive social causes, much to the chagrin of her cohorts, Wood said.

"She was in-your-face outspoken and never walked away from an argument," Wood said. "She was to the left of Bernie (Sanders), so you know she had plenty of arguments growing up here in Sussex County. Sarah didn't stand for bullying and would make it a point to stand up to anyone she caught doing it."

She kept her 11:30 p.m. curfew — even at age 19. Academic success came easy for her daughter, Wood said; Sarah was an honor roll student throughout high school and made the dean's list during her first, and only, semester at the University of Delaware.

Despite "having everything go for her," Sarah still slipped into drugs and that slip took her life, Wood said.

"I remember when she learned about drugs in middle school, she got into it, she could draw the chemical signs of all the drugs she learned about," Wood said. "I know there's a reason people self-medicate, but I just don't understand how she got there."

Wood, hoping to turn tragedy into help for others, went public with her daughter’s cause of death by listing it in a Dec. 22 obituary appearing in The (Wilmington) News Journal. And that decision, while still uncommon, is being made by more and more families across the country.

"There’s obviously a shame that many families feel with losing a child to addiction, but it is an illness. Not to downplay the tragedy, but when a family loses a child to cancer, they don’t think twice about listing it in the obituary," said Jim Hood, founder of Facing Addiction, national advocacy group. "But we’ve seen these stigmas before, with breast cancer, HIV/AIDS. People started being open with it and perceptions started to change."

See Also: Hooked on Heroin - Virginia's Growing Killer

According to preliminary numbers for 2016, there was a rise in opioid-related deaths in the Lower Shore of Maryland, as well as in Sussex County, Delaware. Fentanyl, an opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin, accounted for a 114 percent increase in overdoses for Delaware in the first nine months of 2015 and 2016.

Between January and September 2016, the death toll of heroin in Wicomico, Worcester and Somerset spiked by 73 percent over the same nine-month period in 2015. Fentanyl overdoses saw a 700 percent increase during the same time frame.

The numbers have yet to be released for the last quarter of 2016 in either state, but when they are, Sarah Wood's Dec. 18, 2016, death will be counted among them.

'I'm no hero, I'm just honest'

On the evening of Dec. 17, a relative found some wax paper — commonly used to package heroin — inside Sarah’s room. The 19-year-old woman said it must’ve been from cleaning out the room of a relative who had a known heroin problem. No one had suspected Sarah had a problem herself, according to Margret Wood.

"She was a very smart girl, so she knew how to hide it well," Wood said. "So she just shrugged it off and didn’t think anything of it."

At about 2 a.m. Dec. 18, the same relative heard a "thump" in the house. The noise was dismissed as the cat knocking over an object in the night.

But the noise was not an innocent cat; Sarah's body had hit the floor.

In the afternoon, after Sarah had failed to rise, the family found her body, Wood said.

"She literally dropped to the floor," Wood said. "I’d like to think it took her immediately, but I don’t know."

The events of that night ring all too familiar for Jim Hood, founder of the Connecticut-based Facing Addiction, a national advocacy group to combat substance abuse. In 2012, an accidental overdose killed his son while he was away at college in New Orleans.

Hood’s son, Austin, had struggled for six years with addiction, going through countless treatments. When addiction finally took his son's life, Hood, like Wood, didn’t want to keep quiet about it.

"Many people don’t understand addiction is an illness, so there’s still a lot of shame for people struggling with it and the families that love them," Hood said. "But we’re starting to see that stigma go away and people are becoming more comfortable talking about it."

The Wood family’s decision to mention Sarah’s cause of death in the obituary is part of a growing trend to dispel the stigma around addiction, according to Hood.

When perceptions change, Hood said "hearts open and then their wallets to fight it."

But that perception shift takes time, according to Heidi McNeely of the Worcester County Warriors Against Opioid Addiction. The group is advocating for more treatment options in the county, which state Sen. Jim Mathias, D-38-Worcester, called a "treatment desert."

"When we started in April (2016), I had a hard time talking about addiction," McNeely said of her own family situation. "But now it's gotten easier and I’m willing to talk about with anyone. I’m really proud of the families who have been open with losing their children to this disease because it drives home the fact these (are) beautiful, dean’s list kids. It can happen in any family."

McNeely and Hood both said the families who have decided to be open about overdoses in obituaries were brave. Wood dismissed those assessments.

"We've gone for years not talking about this, and kids still keep dying," Wood said. "People will tell me from time to time, 'Oh, you're so brave.' I'm not brave, I'm just honest. We have to talk about this or more kids will die."

Wood isn’t the only relative on Delmarva to be open in the obituaries.

Two obituaries were published in January either explicitly stating the cause of death being a drug overdose or alluding to it. The obituary of John M. Wessels, 23, said he died of a drug overdose, while the family of 21-year-old Morgan Alyssa Taylor asked mourners to visit a heroin advocacy website or the Wicomico Narcotics Task Force website.

An extended relative of Taylor’s took to Facebook to elaborate.

"Morgan was a beautiful, kind soul. … she wasn’t a loner, didn’t struggle in school. Morgan didn’t fit into a the little box society has labeled "an addict," the relative wrote. "She was sucked into what all the kids are doing and she wasn’t ready to get out."

'Sobering reminder'

Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis said he "applauds the Wessel and Taylor families" for their openness and wrote them letters of support.

"I can only imagine how excruciating it must be to write an obituary about your own child," Lewis said. "My heart breaks for them, and for them to publicly acknowledge it is critical in getting parents involved with their children to discuss the dangers of addiction. I know it sounds overdone, but I would implore moms and dads to discuss with their children the dangers of addiction and have that talk early. Because it works."

Lewis isn’t content with just writing letters. While arresting suspected drug dealers is key, his office is also taking preventative measures. Borrowing a tactic from the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, the office has placed a sign near its headquarters on Naylor Mill Road in Salisbury, tallying overdoses in the county.

"It's a very sobering reminder of what we are fighting out there," Lewis said.

The "sobering reminder" was something Wood hoped to drive home not only in the obituary, but at the Dec. 22 funeral service.

"Anyone between the ages of 16 to 25 heard it from me," she said. "I told them not to do drugs, that no matter how bad your problems are, heroin or any other drug isn’t going to take them away."

Awareness, according to Salisbury Mayor Jake Day, is just one piece of the puzzle to address the opioid epidemic. But it’s not just any piece; it’s the piece that could prevent someone from slipping into opioid addiction, Day said.

And raising awareness doesn’t always have to come in the wake of tragedy, Day said. Last year, the city held an awards ceremony at a Third Friday event for a high school student art and video contest addressing addiction sponsored by the Office of the Wicomico County State’s Attorney.

"Those pieces were incredibly moving and show that just how much this issue has touched our young people in the community," Day said. "Having it at a Third Friday was important because it’s a time when people are out with their friends and families in one area, so there are more opportunities for people to have open conversations about it."

Art has been an outlet  shared by many children on the Eastern Shore. Assistant State’s Attorney Richard Brueckner, who coordinates the contest, said this year’s contest has been expanded to students in Dorchester, Somerset and Worcester counties, with the prize money raised from $3,500 to $15,000 thanks to donated money from community organizations.

Time to talk

There are no hard numbers available on the cause of death as overdose listed in an obituary, according to Eleanor Erin Artigiani at the University of Maryland Center for Substance Abuse Research.

As deputy director of government policy and affairs, Artigiani said her organization scans 300 news publications for trends in the reporting of drugs. She said the trend in obituaries is relatively new.

"I would say from my knowledge and experience, we didn't really see this five or 10 years ago, except among exceptional parents," Artigiani said. "We're starting to see it more and more, so we're seeing a shift in how we view substance use disorder. It's becoming less stigmatized as a moral failing and being seen more as a legitimate disorder.

"It's very brave for people to get out there and say this happened," Artigiani said. "This could lead to people becoming more comfortable with reaching out and getting help if they struggle with substance use disorder."

In the 12-step recovery community, the first step for an addict is to admit they have a problem. According to Margret Wood, her daughter never did that. From text messages found on Sarah’s cellphone, Wood said her daughter had hidden an opioid problem since the age of 14.

"You know how they say ‘hindsight is 20/20?’ Well, even looking back, I didn’t see any problems," Wood said. "There wasn’t any signs, any indication she had a problem."

At times, Sarah was able to get out of the clutches of addiction, living a year and a half clean prior to the summer before college. But then she got together with a young man who was into drugs, Wood said, and the two started using Molly, a psychedelic stimulant commonly used in the electronic music scene.

After the experimentation with Molly, Sarah slipped back into her heroin habit, according to Wood.

"When she went off to college he sent her a breakup text on the first day," Wood said. "But instead of using even more, Sarah decided to get clean. She got 90 days in Narcotics Anonymous."

And her mother never knew, until it was too late.

Why didn't Sarah say anything? Margret Wood said it might have been because of the struggles a close relative faced with addiction — the same relative Wood blamed for the wax paper found in her room.

"Sarah saw her go in and out of 13 rehabs. She saw her get the police called on her. She saw a lot of things," Wood said. "Maybe she just didn't want to go through that? I really don't know."

Wood describes heroin addiction as like playing "Russian roulette with an eight-chamber gun, seven of which are loaded."

"It might not kill you the first time, it might not kill you the 100th time, but drug dealers do not believe in quality control," Wood said. "You don't know what you're getting, and what you're getting could kill you, just like Sarah."

'One day at a time'

Sarah loved animals of all kinds, but especially loved sloths. For Christmas, Margret Wood said she bought Sarah an "ugly Christmas sweater" embroidered with a sloth, a nod to her daughter’s "silly" sense of humor.

On Dec. 22, 2016, the Wood family buried Sarah in that sweater.

About 200 people attended Sarah’s funeral at St. Ann Catholic Church in Bethany Beach, according to Margret Wood. Friends, family, none of them said they knew about Sarah’s struggles, Wood said.

More than a month after the loss of her daughter, Margret Wood said her family was still trying to adjust.

"It's been the toughest on her twin brother because they were the closest to each other," Wood said. "I think somewhere in our minds, it still hasn't hit home yet; we're still in denial. She was supposed to be taking calculus during the winter semester so we just kind of pretend she's at school."

But every so often, little reminders of Sarah pop up, according to Wood. The University of Delaware accidentally sent her dean's list certificate to their home, Wood noted.

"I know it was a mistake, but it was a little bittersweet," Wood said.

The holidays, already hard due to the recent death of her mother, were even more excruciating, Wood said. She said some family friends got the family a tree and there was a gift exchange, but it just wasn't the same.

"We had Christmas, but it wasn't a great Christmas," Wood said. "I couldn't bring myself to get the decorations out and I really couldn't bring myself to clean out her dorm room."

For the Wood family, the 12-step wisdom her daughter tried to embrace has become a mantra of their own.

"Her grandfather was clean and sober 45 years because of Alcoholics Anonymous," Margret Wood said. "One of their sayings is to take it one day at a time. That's all we can do."

410-845-4639

Twitter: @hculvyhousedmv


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