Since You’ve Been Gone: 5 Lessons I’ve Learned Since My Brother’s Overdose Death

Ashley Fennig

October 12 is a day that I will never forget. On this day two years ago, my brother physically left this world as a result of an opioid overdose. In the two years since that day, I have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge about the opioid epidemic and the support network that has grown around it. I have learned the impact of my brother’s life, and discovered a newfound strength that I never knew I had.

The author and her brother

I wanted to create a list of the things I have learned since my brother’s passing. To those who knew my brother, to those who have lost a loved one, and to those in recovery themselves, I hope you can empathize with my key learnings.

1. Your impact is always greater than you know.

When we announced that my brother Mike had passed away, there was an outpouring of support through direct messages, calls, texts, and on social media. We told our close friends and family the details of the funeral service, and we also posted the information on Facebook. The response was overwhelming—the entire church was packed. I had asked his closest friends to send me a short video clip about their relationship with Mike and their favorite memory. My intention was to show this short video of his impact on the people he knew at the beginning of the service. Unfortunately, this was impossible; we had received so many videos it turned out to be an hour long!

Whether it was stories in his tribute video or anecdotes shared at his funeral services, the message was clear: Mike, your impact was widespread. Your laughter was infectious and your jokes, although subtle, will be remembered for years. You were a key support for your friends in recovery and for some, a reason they are still alive today. I hope you knew just how loved you truly were.

2. Educating others is the best way to erase stigma.

A lot of people have misconceptions about addiction. I would encourage anyone with lived experience of this disease to help educate others about the realities and science of addiction.

I absolutely hate when people use the word “choice” about addiction. You would never tell a cancer patient that it was their choice to get cancer, and addiction can be just as life-threatening if left untreated. Addiction is a disease. It does not discriminate on ethnicity, gender, race or socioeconomic status.

The CDC reports that 115 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. In Maryland alone, there were 653 overdose deaths in the first three months of 2018. Please, look at this as a public health issue and not a criminal issue—and urge those around you to do the same. The work to support those suffering, to help those in recovery, and to end this horrible epidemic is ongoing. The conversation needs to continue. The stigma surrounding substance/opioid use disorder prevents people from seeking treatment. It’s time to erase the deadly stigma, shame, and discrimination. The first step toward doing that is education.

3. You can’t do everything on your own. Reach out for support.

If you have a loved one who is in recovery or struggling, reach out to an organization like Shatterproof, or a local support group in your area. There are also resources within your city or county health department or even at your place of employment. They can guide and support you as you work towards a better outcome for your loved one.

4. Don’t blame.

It’s hard not to ask the what-ifs when tragedy strikes. “What if I had said just the right thing to him, would I have been able to save him?” There can be finger pointing within families and friend circles, as different people have different approaches. The best thing you can do, when tragedy strikes or even before, is to support each other.

5. Sharing your story makes you stronger.

Mike understood the stigma and the stereotypes people assign to those who deal with addiction. All he ever wanted to feel was “normal.” He never felt comfortable sharing his story. He never knew how many people he could have impacted that had similar stories. Similarly, he never knew how much he could have been impacted by others’ stories.

Resilience is strengthened by recognizing that we are experts in our own lives, and we all have something to share with others. I choose to share Mike’s story and I choose to tell my story. I have learned the power of emotional and autobiographical storytelling. I use storytelling to honor Mike’s life and legacy, as well as helping in the healing process for myself.

I am strong because I have to be. It is not easy, but every time I share Mike’s story along with my own I get a little stronger.


Two years. Twenty four months. One hundred and four weeks. Seven hundred and thirty days. Mike, I miss you every day and can only hope I am making you proud with my advocacy efforts.

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