I lost my brother almost three years ago to a fatal overdose, following more than a decade of addiction to heroin and alcohol. After notification from the police, I knew what had to happen next, in theory. There was the identification of the body, clearing out his apartment, and arrangements to be made for a service.
Everyone in my family had to focus on something to avoid feeling what we knew would inevitably come. Dad took care of delivering the news to family and close friends. Mum found some peace in choosing personal effects and childhood memories to share at the memorial. Hordes of well-meaning neighbors and loved ones descended upon my childhood home with enough gift baskets, floral arrangements, and non-perishables to open a duty-free store.
My assignments were to proofread the obituary and to "take care of myself." I think it gave my parents some solace to reduce my responsibilities to related to his death, as the support needed during his life became an all-hands-on-deck situation by the time I left for college.
Raised in an unremarkable, small pocket of Maine, my brother didn’t fit in, from the moment he arrived until the moment that he left us. In a community where privacy was a luxury that only the dullest of residents could afford, everyone knew. As he grew up and became an adult, empathetic inquiries and knowing smiles turned into private whispers and sympathetic looks. For Gavin, escaping the stigma of addiction became as difficult as escaping the substances themselves.
No mention of his struggles. Nothing referencing the years of desperation that defined his adult life. Not one word that acknowledged the substances, diagnoses, prejudice, or perseverance that shaped his identity and, ultimately, his death. Instead, my parents opted for the phrase that says so much than the syllables it’s formed with: "died suddenly."
At first, I understood. That all-too-common phrase is often a polite filler, designed to protect a lost loved one. My parents didn’t want to give up the announcement of his passing to that same disease that had taken him in the first place. For them and so many families, it’s a way of reclaiming the person’s power, of not letting the world define them by a single detail of their lives. So, I let it go and the obituary ran as it was written.
The exact date is an estimate, based on the medical findings. Because we weren’t with him when he died. No one was. Our family didn’t surround a hospital bed, laughing while we held back tears and shared memories of happier times. We didn’t spend his last few days doing all the things he loved to do, eating his favorite foods, or visiting his favorite places. We didn’t get to do any of that, because Gavin died alone feeding the one thing that he felt was left to him.
I grew up knowing that addiction was part of who my brother was. It didn’t stop our family from loving him. It didn’t stop me from teaching him how to drive during a brief year of recovery. It didn’t stop my parents including him in every single holiday. It didn’t stop me dancing with him at my wedding. Addiction didn’t stop Gavin from being part of our family any more than Gavin could stop addiction from having a seat at the table.
Gavin didn’t have to die. His life did not have to be defined by loneliness, frustration, and fear. But we have to talk about it. We have to help people understand that addiction is a disease, just like any other when it comes to treatment and outcomes. We have to make sure that the years our loved ones suffer aren’t distilled to a catchall phrase that helps us feel better.
But when you’re ready, think about how you will honor their memory. How will you remember someone who died from a disease most of the world would rather forget?
Recently, I chose to rewrite Gavin’s obituary and submit it to the National Addiction Memorial. Because Gavin didn’t die suddenly. He was an intense, brilliant, insightful person who died after more than a decade of an addiction that could have been treated. I hope that you will read his story and share it. I hope that it will inspire others to submit stories of those they have lost to addiction. More than anything else, I hope that these stories will create changes, so that eventually, no one will be defined – in life or in death – by addiction.
Sophie Gabrion is Shatterproof's Manager of Digital Content and Social Media.