An image of Ryan Bossie from a GoFundMe page. (Image via GoFundMe)
It would have been easier to state, vaguely, that Ryan Bossie had simply “died” on Jan. 30. Maybe put the word “suddenly” or “unexpectedly” behind it.
But what the family of a young man from Caribou, Maine, chose to do instead was much bolder, and more difficult.
They opened his obituary with this line: “Ryan Douglas Bossie, 27, died January 30, 2015, in Portland after losing a hard-fought battle with addiction.” Though the obituary continued as a touching ode to a beloved son and brother — “He enjoyed skateboarding, snowboarding, hiking, gardening, fishing, participating in moose hunts, and “chillin” with his family and friends” — the first sentence was groundbreaking because his family went where most don’t.
The Bossie family confronted Ryan’s cause of death head-on with a clear admission to the public that their loved one had died from a drug overdose — and in doing so joined a growing number of families who are using obituaries as a way to warn people about the tragic reality of drug addiction.
Ryan Bossie doing one of the many things he loved. (Photo: Facebook)
“It’s better than sweeping it under the rug,” Ryan’s brother, Andrew, told the Bangor Daily News. The first pass at Ryan’s obituary didn’t name his struggle with drugs, so the family agreed to take what the paper calls “the rare step” of mentioning the addiction.” I just said I don’t think we should be ashamed of this,” recounts Andrew. “I hope that by including that maybe it helps someone else just a little bit, that their story has a different ending.”
Alex Hesse’s family went even further, using his obituary to describe in detail the hurt they felt by his passing. Hesse, who was 26 and from Ohio, died in January from a heroin overdose.
Alex Hesse’s mother, Penny, speaks about her family’s struggles with Alex’s heroin addiction. (Video: Local 12)
"All of the wonderful blessings that he had: talent, friendships, positive outlook on life, and, most importantly, family were sidelined by a wrong decision to do drugs," reads Alex’s obituary on the website of the Brater Funeral Home in Harrison, Ohio. “In life, one little decision can make a huge impact on not just you but also those that love and care for you. Alex had a loving and supporting family and had everything a young man could want. But drugs took ahold of his life, changed him, and destroyed so much of the hope and promise in his future.”
"His brother, Andrew, and sister, Allie, wrote his obituary," Alex’s mother, Penny Hesse, told local channel Fox 6. “And they felt it necessary to let other people know this drug kills.”
Elizabeth Sue Sleasman, 37, of Bellingham Wash., chose to pen her own obituary before a death that, according to her family, she saw as inevitable after 25 years of drug and alcohol abuse. “I have quit now, but I am dead; don’t wait as long as I did, give your life another chance,” Sleasman pleads to readers in her obituary, which her family chose to publish in full on ObitsforLife.
The most heartbreaking part is when she speaks of her daughter.
“While using, I thought I was invincible and nothing could ever happen to me —after all, I was the “safest” user out there. I had a little girl who, because of my drinking and drugging was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and other very serious problems. I did not believe this, I believed she was perfect and only a little slow; and of course, it was not my fault — she will need specialized care for the rest of her life — again, not my fault, or so I thought.”
“You will become a thief and a liar, next you will lose your family, your ‘real’ friends, and eventually your life,” Sleasman warns.
These searing words speak in a gut-wrenchingly personal way to anyone who has loved, known or lost someone to addiction. But above all, they’re honest. And they’re brave — the Bossie, Hesse and Sleasman families made a conscious decision to fly in the face of conventional obituary etiquette.
Obituaries often employ secret codes to describe the cause of death. Terms like “died suddenly,” “died unexpectedly,’ “passed away at home,” or just simply “died” can obtusely indicate that death was brought on by a means that society does not find “noble,” such as addiction or suicide. In fact, When HIV/AIDS began claiming lives in the 1980s, young men were said to have simply have “died after a long illness.”
Many obituary-writing guides promote this ambiguity: “When it comes to a local member of society; a high school teacher; a local store owner, most families would appreciate a degree of respect. This means omitting the embarrassing causes of death from the obituary. Instead of explicitly detailing the cause of death, it is better to stick with generic and less abrupt explanations such as died after a long illness, or died unexpectedly,” suggests MySendOff.com in an article called The Tasteful Sendoff. In fact, in a national survey of managing editors overseeing the obituary pages of their papers, 62 percent said they never use the word “suicide”.
“There are certain things we find shameful in society, and so we avoid those topics, even though there may be many people facing the same issue, says Art Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Texas. “Addiction is one of those topics. It is hard for people to realize how many families are touched by addiction unless people start to speak up about it.”
The Bossie family was astounded by the reaction they got from their community when Ryan’s obituary was published. “It was what happened after [the obituary ran] that surprised all of us,” Andrew Bossie told the Bangor Daily News. “It was borderline overwhelming how many people reached out to us, who were affected [by addiction] or struggling with it themselves.”
That’s because people connect with these obituaries. “Including a statement that a person died from an overdose helps to shine light on an area that affects many families and often brings unexpected connections to other people,” says Markman. Northwestern University’s Readership Institute surveyed 37,000 consumers in 100 newspaper markets and found that 45 percent said newspaper obituaries were important to them — 12 percent said “very important” and another 33 percent said “somewhat important.”
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Another benefit to announcing addiction as a cause of death is that it can be a catharsis for the grieving families. “Sudden deaths of young people are particularly difficult for parents, grandparents, spouses/partners, and siblings to handle.” says Markman. “Talking about the death and sharing it with others is an important part of the grieving process.”
Denying the truth, no matter how painful it is, can be harmful to your psyche. “If you are unwilling to really engage with the story of the tragic death, then it may create stress for a long time that can affect the physical and mental health of those who lost a loved one to addiction,” adds Markman.
“Hopefully by making more people aware of Alex’s struggle, we can shed some light on this devastating issue and work to fix a very big problem in our community,” said Alex Hesse’s family in his obituary, hoping his story might “help one person not make the same mistakes that Alex did, [and] save one family from losing a loved one far too young.”
A direct obituary is an important first step.