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Since November 16, 2018, there are two questions that instantly make my heart stop:
1) Do you have any siblings?
2) How did your brother die?
When someone asks me question one, I always take an uncomfortable pause. I don’t know what tense I should be speaking in: “Yes, I have two?” or “Yes, I had two?” Then, I have to follow up with “but my brother passed away in November.”
This detail brings on question two. I used to say something along the lines of “he lost a battle with addiction”—something that didn’t sound as harsh to me. Now, I am somehow able to say, “He died of a heroin overdose.” Then I am on the receiving end of the uncomfortable pause, watching the person I’m talking to decide how to react.
My mind races every time the pause lingers. I wonder, are you judging my brother? Are you judging me? My family? I know that overdose deaths don’t always elicit the same empathy as deaths from cancer or other illnesses. No one questions the morality of someone who dies of cancer. No one questions the family. Substance use disorder is an illness, just like cancer. But not everybody sees it that way.
I knew in my heart what caused Marc’s death, but I didn't want to believe it until the autopsy was complete. I would tell people outside of my inner circle that we were still waiting for the official results to confirm what happened. It was enough information to stop people from asking more questions, and it bought me more time to try and process it all. But about a month after Marc died, I got a call from my father with those autopsy results. Three words that punched me right in the stomach, confirming his cause of death: acute heroin toxicity.
Marc dying of an overdose was the devastating truth that I didn’t want to face for months. My sister, Alison, and I both gave eulogies at his funeral. We discussed his struggle with substance use disorder and depression, but we never said the word “overdose”. I posted about Marc and my struggle with grief on social media—however, I didn’t discuss his struggles because I wasn’t ready for potential questions and judgment that might come from people who knew little about Marc. As his big sister, I still felt the need to protect him.
It wasn’t until the week of my 35th birthday in March when I finally decided that I would talk about what happened to Marc. I struggled with how I would share this and how I could get people to see who my brother was beyond his addiction. Beyond the overdose. Beyond the stigma. I realized only one thing would explain it all: the eulogy I wrote for him. It was an overview of his beautiful life and straight from my heart—so, I shared his eulogy. Then I created his Shatterproof memorial fundraiser page and for the first time ever, I typed out the devastating truth: “My brother, Marc, passed away on November 16, 2018, due to a heroin overdose.” I finally decided to acknowledge this devastating truth and face it head on. It has helped me develop a different type of strength that I never had before.
It has been over nine months now since Marc passed away. I could have never prepared myself for how heavy the grief and absence of Marc would be. However, my new strength has allowed me to carry it in such a way that the weight doesn’t crush me and I can throw that weight behind my words. I can advocate for those who need a voice. I can tell Marc’s story and remind people that behind his struggles, there was an intelligent, charismatic, hilarious, loyal, and irreplaceable human being. I refuse to let the way he died define his life. I refuse to let this stigma grow. I refuse to stay silent.
If you know someone who suffers from substance use disorder, I encourage you to raise your voice. Do it for your loved one. Do it for those we have lost. Do it for Marc.
Jaclyn Brown is a Shatterproof Ambassador.