Families hope candid obituaries will spare others anguish of addiction
Ryan Lacellotti's family made it a point not to talk about his addiction while he was alive.
When he died, they put aside the shame and stigma, and they told the world.
"Ryan was an avid sports fan, especially with his beloved Penguins and enjoyed skiing," his parents wrote in his obituary. "Sadly, he struggled with heroin addiction for the past three years. God has now released Ryan from his pain."
Ryan was born in Lancaster, and he and his family moved to the North Hills when he was a toddler. He loved electronics, computers and technology.
His addiction began three years ago.
"That's when our nightmare began," Mark Lancellotti, Ryan's father, said.
His obituary appeared Aug. 10, two days after his death, both in print and online — laying bare the truth of his addiction and overdose in black and white. He was 35.
"After death, what's there to hide?" Mark Lancellotti said. "Maybe if his story comes out maybe some kid will read it, or maybe more people will bring it forward. If one kid is saved, or one set of parents can not have this grief, it's all worth it. Because he's gone – he's gone. Let's have the suffering he went through be of some good to somebody."
It is a grim and growing trend – addressing addiction and overdose deaths in the obituaries of loved ones, marking their disease in a final memorial.
"The most notable trend I've observed is the transition toward more personalized, honest obituaries," said Katie Falzone, vice president of operations at Legacy.com, a network of online obituaries culled from publications worldwide. "Families are now sharing things that weren't 'polite' to share in previous generations, and in doing so they are helping remove the stigma around substance abuse and mental illness."
The stigma played a role in the silence of Mark Lancellotti and his wife, Beatrice, who live on Washington's Landing in Pittsburgh's Troy Hill neighborhood.
"She did not want to talk about this to anybody," he said. "For the stigma. For the lack of knowledge. For the chance he might turn around and this goes away, so why bring it up?"
It never occurred to Elizabeth Gilmore Jones to be anything but truthful about her son's death.
Zachary Jones was 29 when he was found dead in his apartment Sept. 2. Someone had cleaned up the drugs that killed him. He likely thought he was shooting heroin; it was pure fentanyl.
"I remember when we were starting to write the obituary and my daughter said, 'Are you sure you want to put this in here?' I said, 'Yeah, absolutely, because it's the truth,'" said Jones, of Upper St. Clair. "I'm not ashamed of Zack because he was an addict – he had a serious disease. There's a lot of it out there, and people need to be aware, not hide it. I don't care what anybody thinks."
Zack went to rehab 25 times, the first being while he was still in high school.
"Not having a clue what I was really getting into as a parent, I thought, 'Oh, well, he'll be better,'" she said. "And that was the beginning."
Along the way, Zack's family came to believe his addiction would kill him. Both Jones and her younger son, Christopher, believe that Zack was wired in a way that made it impossible for him to truly kick the addiction.
"Zack lived in the moment, and he wanted to enjoy the moment," Chris Jones said. "He always did what was, in that moment, most what he would enjoy. He was always the first one to try things. He had no fear.
"So many times I expected him to die," he said. "I would try to prepare for it. When the moment comes, you're not prepared."
He said his family truly believed that, in Zack's last clean days, this was the time he might make it. He had a girlfriend. He wanted to stay clean – get married, have a family.
"He was so certain he was never going to touch a drug again," Chris Jones said.
"It's like every day of your life, your heart hurts," his mother said. "You don't ever process it – I don't know how you do.
"There was a time in Zack's life when he was so raging out of control that I would have expected the phone call," she said. "I wasn't expecting it this time. As a mother... it's your worst nightmare."
She shared that nightmare with her friends.
"I'm an open book. I have a lot of friends, and they all lived through this with me," she said. "I was never ashamed of it any more than anything else. I didn't pretend it didn't exist."
Ann Wilkinson knew her daughter was dying. She invited the world to watch.
"I talked to Kristen about it while she was laying in bed," Wilkinson said. "I said, 'Kristen, do you want me to tell your story?' and she said yes. I said, 'Do you want me to take your picture and show it?' and she said yes."
Seventeen years of heroin use left Kristen Bachner with abscesses up and down her arms and legs. In February, she had open heart surgery to replace a heart valve destroyed by infection. She was 30.
"She swore she would never use again," Wilkinson said.
"She went back to using pretty quick."
Five months later, she was back in the hospital with arm and neck pain. Blood clots and infection affected her cervical spine. At 31 she was paralyzed from the neck down. Surgery would likely kill her. If it didn't, she'd still be a quadriplegic.
She knew she was dying.
"It's hard to hear your daughter say that she's petrified, scared of dying, and tell her not to be scared," Wilkinson said.
She turned her grief outward – for both herself and Kristen.
"I think she would want teenagers – people that are using now, people that are friends and family, people that love addicts – to remember... the addict is not the same person once they do that drug," she said. "They are still a person. They call them a junkie, but they're still a person. They don't mean this."
"I wanted to tell people about her and break the stigma of heroin addicts," Wilkinson said. "She grew up in a happy home – middle class, went to Disney World with me and her brother. We had many happy Christmases together. She played basketball. She had people that loved her very, very much."
On Legacy.com, editor Stephen Segal noted the shift in attitude, which has led to a pushback against the stigma of addiction.
"More and more often, the families of those who die from addiction are choosing to tell those stories publicly, in grief, but without shame, hoping that a true recounting of these personal demons might help others find a different path," he wrote.
Wilkinson said some have called her brave for sharing the intimate details of Kristen's disease not just in her obituary, but across social media as well.
"I don't feel like I'm brave," she said. "I just feel like I wanted to tell her story and tell them that this girl could have been anybody's daughter. She was my daughter, and her dad's daughter. And we loved her."
Segal said the honest obituaries are aimed at dismantling a remaining stigma that can be detrimental to recovery.
"There's this dangerous idea that's grabbed hold of the popular consciousness over the years that drug addicts are a whole separate category of people," Segal wrote.
Wilkinson once felt the same.
"I used to feel the way that other people felt at first – that, you know, they're junkies, and why can't they overcome this? What is wrong with them that they can't overcome this?" she said. "Now I finally see how hard it is."
She said she was open with most of her close family and some close friends about Kristen's addiction, which consumed more than a decade of her life.
Families left behind, particularly parents, are finding that addiction is frighteningly nondiscriminatory.
"Well-off, poor, black, white — it doesn't matter," said Mark Lancellotti. "Big families, small families, older people, younger people — it doesn't matter. It's just so random, so random to the point that it's all encompassing."
Jones said she has several friends whose children suffer from addiction, and Zack lost friends to the disease as well. She faced others who believed Zack's addiction was a choice.
"I used to say if I had a child with brain cancer, at least I'd have sympathy," she said.
He hated his addiction, she said.
In a letter he wrote to a family friend in the aftermath of an overdose and stint in rehab, he said he felt trapped.
"I feel like I'm wandering in the dark and everyone is asking if I saw a light after all this but I am still living completely in dark," he wrote. "I am scared and don't know what to do, please don't share this with my mom, it will scare her."
Wilkinson said Kristen hated what she'd become.
"I think she meant it every time she'd say she didn't want to live her life like this," Wilkinson said. "Her sister asked her before she died ... 'Kristen, what if you knew you were going to die in five years. What if you knew that and you were still addicted?' Kristen said, 'I don't think I'd want to live five more years if I'm addicted.'"