Families write honest obituaries to speak truth about drug overdoses

Angela James wrote the truth about her daughter’s death.

The mother could barely put one foot in front of the other, never mind ponder what others would think about her honesty in Kaileah’s obituary.

“I was in absolute shock when Kaileah died, I was so shattered,” James said. “And just trying to put together words that could describe my amazing daughter was just so difficult.

“I miss my daughter every single day.”

More than four years has passed since James found 19-year-old Kaileah in her apartment, poisoned by carfentanil — a synthetic opioid 100 times more toxic than fentanyl.

Half of a white pill was found on her daughter’s dresser.

Read more: 16 carfentanil-related deaths in northern Alberta over 2-week span

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“It didn’t occur to me that I was doing something different by being public, by being open about Kail’s overdose,” her mother said, “because we love her so much and I was not concerned about stigma or judgement.”

Kaileah’s obit showed a picture of a beaming young woman with vibrant pinkish-purple hair.

It talked about her “easy-going, gentle nature” and how she became a “wonderful, patient, big sister.”

Kaileah James died of an accidental carfentanil overdose on November 24, 2016.
Kaileah James died of an accidental carfentanil overdose on November 24, 2016. Supplied

Kaileah embraced her extended family, it read. She loved travelling and had a passion for animals, especially horses.

But her death notice also described a young woman addicted to toxic drugs.

“What doesn’t show in the pictures of this lovely girl is her involvement with drugs, and the devastating toll they took on Kaileah and her family,” wrote James, “ultimately resulting in her accidental loss of life due to a drug overdose.

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“Despite the love and support of her family, and every opportunity given to Kaileah to help her recover from her struggles with addiction, Kaileah did not acknowledge what those around her could see happening. She thought she could stop anytime.”

James said her daughter thought she was in control of her drug use because she stopped using on family vacations and for a family wedding that summer.

“She couldn’t see that she needed help.”

Petra Schulz remembered reading that obituary.

“It left me in tears and it struck me and it was so powerful,” said Schulz.

Schulz lost her own son, Danny, to a fentanyl overdose in 2014. He was 25 years old.

“I wish we would have been honest with our son’s obituary in the paper,” Schulz said.

Read more: ‘It’s saddening. It’s heartbreaking’: Albertans discuss overdose deaths in the time of COVID-19

The family spoke openly and honestly during Danny’s eulogy.

When friends learned about Danny’s substance abuse, Schulz said it opened up a new line of communication and she found others close to her faced the same struggles.

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Danny’s accidental death also pushed Schulz to reach out to strangers and start advocating for safe consumption sites and the decriminalization of illicit drugs.

Read more: Opioid deaths highlight need to decriminalize hard-drug possession in Canada: police chiefs

She co-founded the national group Moms Stop The Harm and often speaks about the stigma of drugs on the user and their family.

“Every family that is open about the cause of the death of their loved one really helps to break down that stigma and silence,” she said.

“Anybody I know who lost a child the way I did,” said Schulz, “we read obituaries.”

Schulz said sometimes the wording and what people don’t say, along with the charities they pick, tell a tragic story.

She said more and more parents are choosing to write openly about substance abuse struggles that eventually killed their children, especially opioids.

“It’s a message that we don’t have to hide.”

Kaileah’s death has also prompted her mother to reach out to other grieving parents across the country. As part of Moms Stop The Harm, James co-facilitates a free bereavement support group called Healing Hearts.

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James also wanted to make sure everyone knew her daughter came from a loving family. Her daughter had hopes and goals of becoming a social worker, but in the end, she couldn’t see she needed help.

“There are so many people that are dying of toxic drug supply and drug addiction is a disease and it’s a disease that doesn’t discriminate.” said James. “It can happen to anyone and anyone’s family.”

Just like Schulz, James also now reads the obituaries.

“I was thinking that if Kail’s obituary could help one person that she would be happy.”

Click to play video: 'Edmonton city councillor Scott McKeen calls for overdose pilot program, declaration of public health emergency' Edmonton city councillor Scott McKeen calls for overdose pilot program, declaration of public health emergency

Edmonton city councillor Scott McKeen calls for overdose pilot program, declaration of public health emergency

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