Families use children's obituary notices to shine light on drug addiction
Nicole Fine's story was supposed to have a happy ending.
A career, a family, then the rest of her life.
Nowhere was it written that she would die of a heroin overdose before that life ever took root.
But when she passed away, her grief-stricken parents vowed that a lesson would come from her life — and her death.
So in the morning Tribune-Review, her obituary began with the unfiltered news:
“Nicole K. Fine, 28, of West Newton died Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, from a heroin overdose after being abstinent for more than one year.”
They wanted everyone to know that heroin kills nice kids from nice homes who have bright futures. They wanted anyone who ever thought of trying heroin to know that it consumed their beautiful, dark-haired daughter who loved to paint.
Fine's parents are among a growing number of families across the nation acknowledging in obituaries that addiction killed their loved ones.
“We feel that society doesn't talk about it, and families try to hide it and deal with it on their own,” said Nicole's father, Scott Fine, 54, of Hunker. “It's not working.”
“It's a poison that's affecting our families, our communities, and we keep it hush-hush,” her mother, Carolyn Todaro, 54, of West Newton, said about heroin, which her daughter started using as a student in Yough High School.
Todaro said her daughter was a different person when she was on drugs. There were personality changes and estrangement from family members.
There was a “disregard for people and property, stories that didn't add up, hanging around a new crowd of people that weren't the pillars of society,” Todaro said. “(Then) money goes missing and you realize you're being robbed.”
Fine was found dead in her Youngwood apartment by her boyfriend of two years, Aaron Marcase, 27, of Irwin. Her co-workers at ITS Enclosures near Mt. Pleasant sounded the alarm when Fine didn't show up for her job as a sales account specialist.
In hindsight, Marcase said, Fine's addiction contradicted her other life choices.
“She liked to write, paint. She was a pretty big nerd, a techie,” Marcase said. “She liked the outdoors and was training to be a yoga instructor. But that's (what happens) with the beast (heroin).
“When I first met her, I knew she had a problem, but she made it sound like it was a problem of the past,” he said.
Deborah Dorsey thought long and hard before disclosing in an obituary that her middle son, Jeremiah Barsczewski, 28, of McKees Rocks, died Feb. 12 when he “lost his battle with addiction.”
“It was a tough decision, but I wanted to be honest,” said Dorsey, 57, a lab technician from Export. “A lot of people need to be aware of how big a problem this is.”
Dorsey said her son, who attended Kiski Area High School but didn't graduate, loved dogs and volunteered at an animal shelter. He became addicted to pills after a car crash when he was 18, but heroin soon replaced the pills.
“Pills are expensive; heroin is cheaper,” Dorsey said. “It just got worse and worse” until that Thursday in February when she received the news that he had died of an overdose at his recycling plant job on Neville Island, she said.
“I've heard that story 3,000 times over the last five to six years,” said Dr. Neil A. Capretto, medical director at Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Beaver County. “Ninety-five percent of new heroin users start with prescription medicine.”
“The parents who lost their children are sacrificing that information to warn others,” said Laura Propst, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Not One More, a group that educates families about the hazards of drug abuse.
Some say it's cathartic for parents to pull back the veil of secrecy about addiction.
“I like the idea of bringing it out from under the rock,” said Susan Stay, a licensed clinical social worker who deals with addiction in her Pittsburgh practice.
But it's not clear whether the obituaries are reaching those at risk for addiction.
“Young people tend not to read obituaries,” Stay said.
The demographics of heroin use continue to change.
For example, in Westmoreland County, the percentage of teenagers who died of drug overdoses dropped between 2011 and 2014, but the percentage of deaths of those between 21 and 40 increased, records show.
Dirk Matson, who is on the front line of the war on drugs, supports using any tactic to spread the word about addiction.
“We need to shine the light on this so people know what we're dealing with,” said Matson, co-chairman of the Westmoreland County Drug Overdose Task Force. “This is an epidemic.”
Publicly acknowledging the issue of addiction within a family takes a great deal of strength and courage, said Mike Manko, spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala.
“Any effort to raise awareness about the damage that is caused by drugs and alcohol is a positive for the community,” he said.
Proceed with care
Experts say they admire parents who decide to “go public,” but Samuel A. Ball, professor of psychiatry in the Yale University School of Medicine, cautions that such a decision should not be “made in the immediate trauma and aftershock following a sudden death.”
“Adding the cause of death to an obituary by itself is not likely to create large-scale change in the attitudes of others if it isn't paired with some public awareness initiative,” he said.
Still, putting such news in print can be powerful and far-reaching.
A Washington state woman, feeling certain addiction would kill her, wrote her own obituary, which went viral on social media.
In her obituary, Elizabeth Sleasman of Bellingham, Wash., who died at 37, offered intimate details of her life.
“I have quit now, but I am dead,” she wrote in her farewell.
“What starts out as fun for the first year or so ends up to be a horrible, lonely life,” she wrote. “During the last 10 years, I never knew from one day to the next where I was going to be. I ate out of garbage cans, begged and stole. I slept in bushes, doorways, abandoned vehicles, and nearly froze to death in the winter.”
She wanted young people to know that they can't just experiment with heroin the way others have experimented with marijuana. Use it once and you're hooked, she said.
You might shake free of the addiction for a while, she said, but it's easy to fall back into that world.
Fine and Barsczewski lived drug-free for a time.
Barsczewski went through rough patches in which he was in and out of jail and rehab, but he appeared to be turning a corner, his mother said.
“He had a job. He liked it. ... And then in a very short period of time, it all went downhill,” she said.
Fine's story is similar, her father said.
There was a two-year estrangement from her dad, but they reconciled.
“Everything was going so good. That's what makes this harder,” Scott Fine said.
Parents who have gone public with their stories say they have no regrets.
“If I could quit my job and devote all my time to drug awareness, I'd do it in a heartbeat if it helps just one kid,” said Susan Hice, a medical assistant from Uniontown whose daughter Lauren Kane Hice, 26, was found dead in a Washington County recovery house. In her pocket was a bus ticket to Harrisburg, where she would have enrolled in a rehab facility.
In her daughter's obituary, Susan Hice wrote that she loved dancing and music, that she had a loving spirit and a kind heart ... and that she died after “losing her long-fought battle with addiction.”
“People need to know — you could lose your life,” Hice said.
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.