Why this family’s obituary about their son’s death went viral

The Shephards, a NC Triangle family who tragically lost their 23-year-old son Clay Shephard in May, wrote an obituary that stated how he died and asked others to be vigilant. According to the Shephards, Clay died of a drug overdose. His obituary went viral.


Clay Shephard via Apex Funeral Home

As I followed this story during the last few weeks, these questions arose: Why is this news? Why did this obituary in which a family simply admitted how their son died go viral? After all, an estimated 183,000 people worldwide died due to drug-related causes (mostly overdoses) in 2012, according to the World Drug Report 2014.

Still, obituaries for those who have died of a drug overdose rarely read like this one. As Alisa Wright Colopy, a former substance abuse therapist, discusses in the N&O article: “obituaries almost always use euphemisms to address overdoses.” Unless, of course, the deceased is a celebrity, in which case the family often doesn’t have the luxury of privacy. Case in point: coverage of 18-year-old Victory Siegel‘s (from Queen of Versailles) death the same week.

Pulling together your deceased loved one’s obituary usually happens within a cloud of grief and exhaustion. However, when your loved one’s death is due to an overdose, often there is an added layer of shock, confusion, and what ifs. My family and I know this from experience.

So, why not discuss addiction — and its related struggles for the deceased and the family — as openly as the Shephards? Because of the associated stigma. Substance use disorder and addiction continues to be seen among the larger public as a moral failing rather than the disease that it is.

The sad reality is that given this stigma, to admit in the obituary that your deceased loved one was an addict is almost more akin to announcing that he/she was a petty criminal rather than acknowledging that he/she suffered from a disease such as cancer. Having just lost a loved one, many families aren’t prepared to face the questions associated with acknowledging the overdose.

That is why this obituary went viral. The Shephards demonstrated generosity and courage by addressing their son’s struggle openly and honestly. To the Shephards — I’m sorry for your loss. I am grateful for your honesty and advocacy for those struggling with addiction and their families.

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