Someone recently asked me the following question: “A friend’s son died and they didn’t share the cause of his death in the obituary and haven’t told me. Is it okay for me to ask?”
I took a breath before responding. The therapist in me wanted to ask, “Why does it feel so important to know?”. The griever in me wanted to yell, “Mind your own business – if they wanted you to know, they would share!!!”. The human being in me sympathized with him.
When someone dies, presumably at a younger age than ‘expected’, our anxiety kicks in. What we sometimes call ‘morbid curiosity’ seems almost an evolutionary, self-protective instinct.
On some subconscious level, we think, “If I know what happened, I can better protect myself. I can make sure my loved ones and I are safe”. Of course, that isn’t the reality. Knowing whether someone died from cancer, a car accident, a suicide, a stroke, an overdose, or whatever else, rarely helps us stay safe.
But what is more important than why people want to know might be why some people choose to keep that information private. The obvious answer is one we have talked about here before: stigma or shame.
Unfortunately, we still live in a society where mental illnesses, like depression and substance abuse, are not treated like other illnesses. There is still blame toward the person, in life, and in death. And people say heartless and thoughtless things. So sometimes we sacrifice the support that might come from people knowing the cause of death to protect from the risk of hurtful comments, shame, or blame.
Ultimately, I think the fear is that one single piece of information will come to define the person we love and their memory. Maybe they were depressed. Perhaps they had a substance use disorder. Maybe they died by suicide or by overdose. And then that fear sets in – maybe this one thing is all that people will see and remember.
And this fear is not wholly unfounded. We still live in a world where we call people “addicts” rather than people with substance use disorders. We define people by a single thing they are coping with. And when they die because of it, it can feel like that seals it permanently. We worry that will forever define their memory to those who didn’t know they were so much more.
When my sister’s boyfriend died, his addiction had taken his life (first figuratively, then literally). But it wasn’t him. He wasn’t merely “an addict”. He was an amazing human being who was struggling with an addiction.
John was . . . good. It seems to simple a word to describe a person, but he was just so good. He could make conversation with anyone, make instant friends. John had this incredible openness with people – he would help anyone. He was so smart and so curious – interested in things in real and deep ways. And he was so funny – goofy and able to make me laugh even when I was so angry at him. He was just so good.
I talked to someone else who lost a friend to an overdose recently. We talked about this risk of someone being defined by their addiction. “He was a million other things,” she said.
A million other things.
I kept coming back to that simple phrase. John was a million other things. Those people we love with substance use disorders are a million other things. Those we’ve lost to substance use disorders, they were a million other things.
August 31st is Overdose Awareness Day, and we often do something to honor the day. This year, I want to do something collaborative. If you lost a loved one to addiction or overdose, I want to invite you to share some of the “million other things” you love and miss about the person.
On Instagram (or anywhere else on social), share these by using the hashtag #amillionotherthings. And if you want to help people know why you are sharing and encourage them to share, you can also include this image with your post.
If you don’t use Instagram, or your Instagram is private, you can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with a photo or video and words about something else you loved and remember about that person – anything at all.
We will find some way to share as many of these as we can – those on the hashtag and those emailed – in a post and/or on social media for Overdose Awareness Day.
So please join us in raising awareness about addiction, raising awareness about overdose, and honoring and remembering our loved ones for a million other things. Please help us spread the word about our #amillionotherthings effort. As always, subscribed to receive our weekly newsletter with new posts and podcasts.