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Reckoning with addiction: Deciding to name the elephant

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By John Inscore Essick

On a cold morning in January 2015, Bonnie Ethington interrupted her husband’s rabbit hunting with a devastating phone call:  “Wayne, come home. Wally is dead.”  Ethington couldn’t bear to enter the house where Wally, 49, and his girlfriend died together of a drug overdose just outside Defoe.  She wouldn’t see his body again until the funeral visitation, when grieving his loss and greeting their family and friends became a singular act of love for the Ethingtons’ only son.  

As we talked about Wally over coffee, Ethington shared that Wally was “personable, caring and loving,” which might explain why she had to leave the visitation early because of exhaustion.  After five hours, she recalls, the last person in that “endless” visitation line had yet to reach her.

Many of those who attended Wally’s funeral were themselves addicted, struggling with substance abuse or in some stage of recovery.  Wally’s funeral was not unusual in that regard.  In fact, the reality is that addicted friends and neighbors are often among those in attendance at funerals for their fellow addicts.  

“Funerals bring everyone together,” Sarah Polston, a funeral director at Prewitt Funeral Home in New Castle, said.  Drug-related deaths are tragic, and tragedy often draws together people who might not meet otherwise.  If we are looking for an opportune moment or occasion to offer a word of love and hope to those struggling with addiction, the funeral may be just the occasion.  How, then, might a funeral become an initial step toward help and recovery?

Funeral directors are already playing a unique role behind the scene in our county’s addiction crisis.  Clyde Sholar, a funeral director at Sholar Funeral Home in Pleasureville, has found that families and friends grieving the death of a loved one to addiction or substance abuse need a listening ear and help “picking up the pieces.”  Polston adds that family members of the deceased often talk with her about addiction and substance abuse in the privacy and confidentiality of her office.  Funeral directors are quick to point out that they are not professional counselors or therapists, but in the immediate aftermath of a drug-related death their experience and supportive services are hopeful and life-giving.  Thankfully, our funeral home directors have contact information ready for COMPASS and Celebrate Recovery.

The work of planning the funeral itself is typically a collaboration of families and ministers.  Funeral planning is never an easy task, but the process is further complicated when planning a funeral for one who died an early death because of addiction or substance abuse.  

The Ethingtons know that tragedies like an overdose death sometimes “drive a wedge between” couples and families, but after Wally’s death they learned they were “stronger together.”  They “made funeral arrangements together, received friends and family at [their] home together, cried together and began the mourning together.”  These days, Bonnie and Wayne both facilitate GriefShare groups, and Bonnie is involved with Celebrate Recovery.

Healing for the Ethingtons started at Wally’s funeral, but Bonnie, who is a lay minister in the United Methodist Church, wishes there had been more openness about the circumstances of Wally’s death during his funeral.  She learned that embracing the funeral of a loved one as an occasion for addressing our addiction crisis requires uncommon courage and transparency from those closest to the deceased.  

The kind of funeral planning Bonnie Ethington envisions will almost certainly raise challenging and painful questions for grieving loved ones.  For example, should the funeral avoid mentioning the real cause of death altogether or talk about it euphemistically? As in saying, “She wasn’t herself?”  Or should the funeral speak openly and honestly about the role that drugs played in the death?  

“You don’t want to sweep it under the rug,” Polston said, but neither do you want to “rub salt in the wound.”  It’s a fine line to walk, to be sure, but walk it we must.

Because a number of those at funerals like Wally’s are themselves struggling with addiction and substance abuse, Ethington’s advice is to take advantage of the moment and face the reality of addiction head on.  

“Talk about it,” she said, “name the elephant in the room.”  Describing the deaths of our loved ones as “unnatural” and avoidable names the unspeakable elephant and allows the dead to speak a painful but necessary word to the living.

Families, ministers and funeral directors together can and should strike the right balance of openness and sensitivity for the good of all in attendance.  Such funerals, difficult though they might be, can ensure that the last word about our loved ones goes not to addiction and substance abuse, but to the community of family and friends who gather to give thanks for their life and mourn their untimely death.

Ethington has conducted her share of funerals through the years, but never for an addict.  When I asked if she’d be willing to conduct the kind of funeral her son deserved, she was quick with a reply:  “I’d like to.  I’d love to.”

Rev. Dr. John Inscore Essick is co-pastor of Port Royal Baptist Church and associate professor of Church History at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky in Georgetown. Feedback is welcomed by e-mailing hopeinhenry@gmail.com. I also welcome conversation with those willing to share their stories.