A Little Adrift… On Death, Addiction, and Our Humanity

Last updated on March 7, 2023

The loud rustling of leaves suffused the air around me as the strong winds danced with the branches on the dense oak trees nearby. The breeze on my face cooled the hot tears running down my cheeks, but did nothing to stop the flow as I sat on the side of a small mountain in Bergamo, Italy.

I had no reason to wipe my tears as I stared at the city far below, my solitude was complete and the tears were far from finished. I stared and stared into the open space in front of me, aware but not processing the sweeping views of the Italian countryside. The avalanche flowing from my eyes was nothing new, but the emotional force behind the tears was stronger than previous days.

This was the first time I cried alone.

For more than a week my family, friends, and fellow students surrounded my every waking moment until I had simply walked out of my language class hours earlier, craving absolute silence.

Five days previously, I said my final goodbyes to my big brother.

A mere three days after his funeral, and only at the fierce prodding of all those people in my life who I love and respect, I boarded an airplane bound for northern Italy to resume my summer study abroad program.

The thought of continuing seemed ludicrous to me. Absurd. How could I pick up where I had left off? The Italian gibberish surrounding me was incomprehensible as my mind cocooned itself from others to protect me from the physical solitude I lacked.

The sympathetic and empty pats on my arm.

Askew glances from those unwilling to look me in my eyes and witness my grief.

So, I ditched class early and took the funicolare as far up the mountainside as it would take me. Bergamo is a city divided into two parts: the lower city, Città Bassa, and the upper city, Città Alta.

What few realize is that the funiculare crawls even farther up the mountain, past the upper city and into San Vigilio, a quieter settlement with ruins and rocks and open space.

I ventured far enough up the mountain to see the entire countryside below me before I found a thick rock wall wide enough to hold my body. I hunched onto the wall, squeezing my knees to my chest and holding myself together as I tried to come to terms with my brother’s death.

Someone had asked me, “Well, you knew it was coming, right?”

No. Knowing it was the likely outcome of my brother’s opioid addiction never prepared me for the reality. I was blindsided by the fact that someone could actually die. Be gone. He was gone. No, there is no way to prepare. I had hugged my brother goodbye three days before , when I boarded my plane to Italy. I would never do that again.

No. I didn’t know it was coming.

If I had, I would have hugged him tighter that last time. I would have told him how much his friendship meant as we became adults and chose to be friends, rather than simply being thrown together by genetics throughout our childhoods. I would have reminded him that no addiction or fault called out by the rest of the world could possibly impact how much I loved him.

I watched the matchbox cars drive the streets far below. The cacophonous rustling of the trees drowned out my racing thoughts.

I just wanted to stop thinking. I wanted my brother back. I wanted the pain to go away.

I hurled my thoughts into the circling wind in front of me. As curse words exploded into the air I realized it was me shouting those angry words. I flung my anger at him for dying and the shredded pieces of my soul into the wind. I sat on that mountainside and time stopped around me.

If I sat there for long enough, if I released the pain and begged whatever higher powers exist for understanding, if I did that, then maybe understanding would come.

Hours passed. Maybe just minutes.

As my fury subsided, grief settled over me again. I rested my chin on my knees and hugged my legs into my chest. I forced my thoughts and feelings back inside my head and heart. I wrapped my grief around me like a blanket, a protection from the platitudes coming my way the moment I returned to town.

Then the first gong of a church bell rang out over the city from Città Alta.

The breeze carried the crisp sound to my ears as I cocked my head askew, listening to the tinkling ring fade away. Another bell clanged from the lower city, the sound drifting farther and lighter yet still settling its music over my little piece of solitude.

More echoes traveled up the mountain as churches all over the city began their evening aural ballet for one woman sitting, alone, on a nearby mountain.

And for perhaps the first time in my life, I felt connected to a pulse of shared humanity. Those bells, rung by the hands of humans miles away from my rock ledge, opened up a fissure of healing. Just a small, niggling piece of hope at that moment, but a connection nonetheless. A connection to to myself, to my brother, and to all of us doing the best we can to live the cards we were dealt.

To this very day, each time I find myself standing at a spectacular vista somewhere in the world I take a moment to remember my brother, to feel gratitude for my life, and to send positivity and love to every person on Earth.

On Losing My Brothers to Drug Overdoses

One of my older brothers died in July 2005 of an opioid overdose. This was early in the opioid epidemic, and he was just 27 years old. Too young to lose his life. In May 2022, one of my other brothers lost his life to a fentanyl overdose. They both battled serious addiction and died of drug overdoses.

This post was sparked by the opioid and fentanyl crises that have taken a huge toll on American families. My story is one of many; it’s unremarkable in many ways because it is, unfortunately, a too common occurrence across the country.

My brother Bruce died early in the opioid epidemic, before any national understanding about the tough situation facing us. Shortly after my brother died, my sister-in-law and cousin both died of opioid overdoses, too. Then 17 years later, another brother, Eric, lost his life to a fentanyl overdose.

Why did my brother die of of a fentanyl overdose? Nearly two decades had passed but the US had precious little to show for all the talk of the opioid epidemic. Rehab for my brother Eric was wildly outside our budget as a family, and resources for addiction are scarce and usually scored by politicians.

I’m from Florida, a state that was ground-zero for the opioid crisis that would sweep the nation. But knowledge about the opioid crisis—about what it looked like, about how to recognize and immediately treat overdose victims—would only come years later.

By the time I understood what took my brother’s life, long after the shock wore off, that’s when I realized what was facing the entire United States.

In 2005, my brother’s death was shocking. Then when my sister-in-law followed suit four years later, it was still shocking. Opioid abuse was not making headlines. One day my brother was just a phone call away; then he was not.

This is the same for fentanyl—this deadly epidemic was only just making headlines in early 2022 when my brother died, but it’s already costing loved ones their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters.

I am so deeply sorry for the other siblings who will go on without their brother or sister, and the parents who have outlived a child. This pain is immense and we aren’t doing enough to prevent others from suffering these same deep fissures of pain in the center of our souls.

My brothers died of drug overdoses. Some may think that exempts them from compassion, but they were my brothers. No fault or flaw or addiction changes that single fact. I rarely write about my brothers publicly, but the lack of meaningful conversation about addiction is serious.

We point fingers and talk about a person’s choices and yet don’t ask why addiction exists. We don’t question the role drug companies play in overprescribing dangerous and addictive prescription drugs.

More than anything though, we too often don’t see another’s pain as an opportunity to investigate what we are doing to as a society to help addicts.

Why aren’t more of us fighting the misinformation both online and offline, and fighting a society that has allowed these epidemics to rise to such dangerous levels? And why are we allowing the people responsible for the crisis skirt personal accountability?

Even beyond the death of the person—a tragedy—addiction splinters families. It rips apart the fabric holding loved ones together and for those looking on, it seems impossible to stop the spiral.

It’s an out of control race to the bottom, and it’s hurting our country, our communities, and our families.

Losing a loved one hurts deeply. Hearing that loved one’s life summarily dismissed also hurts deeply.

Let’s be better about talking about the drug crises that hit America one after the other because of rampant kowtowing to the drug companies.

Let’s do better about stopping the crisis and those profiting off of poor families.

The very moment we stop feeling compassion and respect for each person on this planet, we lose a piece of our shared humanity. We can do better than we are right now. We must.

Note: I read every single comment that comes through, but do not respond. Little I could say would ease your pain. Instead, this is a safe place to share your pain, or even those moments you’ll cherish forever, with those of us who are also navigating the grief.

If you need help, your local hospice organization may offer free counseling services, or you can call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline 24/7 for emotional support in English and Spanish—they also offer a comprehensive list of ways to find local support for those experiencing loss.

42 thoughts on “A Little Adrift… On Death, Addiction, and Our Humanity”

  1. amberzawacki8@gmail.com I to have lost my brother to addiction he was a recovering addict of 4 plus years working as a recovery coach in my community and helping others get clean he was running a sober living home and on the drug court team here in my town he was a highly respected recovering addict because of our family being known as the worst here in town that we made it to recovery and he came out onop and really made a name for himself as he was helping me I have 23 months sober right now I have managed to stay sober even after his death my children he was caring for found him he was 27 years old he passed of a fentanyl overdose we lost our dad two months before him he was a long time meth user and it just took his life and I believe it hurt my brother and made him depressed and I think alot of people often forget that the people who are there helping us addicts or ur family member to get better are also addicts or were at one time and people often forget to see how they are doing or to check on them and my brother was so worried about helping and saving everyone else he forgot to save himself and was overwhelmed and depressed and couldn’t sleep and turned to what he knew could help him and just the one hit he took stole my baby brother away from me and it hurts so bad I wish every day that I reached out or could of helped but all I can do is know he is still guiding me and spread awareness of help that is out there so if anyone needs someone to talk to email me I’m here I have resources to amberzawacki8@gmail.com love everyone here and I’m thinking of u all

  2. I am so sorry for all the losses. At the end of February, I found my little brother dead on the floor of our parents’ house. Drugs! That day we also died. Nothing is the way it used to be. We live, exist, ignore but the loss remains. I am still looking for answers, wanting to understand. I am angry at him, why did he do this to us. Then I cry because I miss him. We could have experienced so many beautiful things together. As a believer in God, I hope to see him again one day. That is my only hope.

  3. I Googled “why my brother died of fentanyl” and your article came up. It’s only been two months and I can’t imagine living the rest of life without my brother. He was a solid member of the community, a loved family member and a great father. We know for sure that he wouldn’t knowingly take anything that contained fentanyl. His death was accidental. I can hear his voice and his laugh. He was a few months shy of his 50th bday. I want to burst out crying at times and feel guilty for continuing my day to day “normal life”. What can we do to help? I don’t understand drug addiction but I trying to. Should the drug dealers be held responsible even if the people taking and buying the drugs are grown adults? Thank you for sharing your feelings. This has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through in my life. I just feel like I can’t sit back and do nothing, I love my brother too much.

  4. Thank you for sharing this. My heritage goes back, in part, to a hilltop city in Italy like the one you describe here. I’ve visited there. And I too lost a brother to fentanyl about a year ago. I found some resonance here, particularly in your point about not previously internalizing the notion that someone—a brother in your case and mine—could “actually die”. It’s a cold, hard, brutal fact that now lives like a gigantic concrete monolith in my consciousness—I’ve never experienced anything like it. I found something in this piece that made me feel less alone….so thanks again.

  5. Thank you for sharing this. I lost my Dad in 2009 to an accidental morphine overdose, and my beloved brother, my twin, my best friend in life, on January 4 of this year to a fentanyl overdose. I try to choose happy every day and enjoy the beauty of life just like my Dad and brother did. My heart is broken for you, myself, and all of us who have lost our loved ones to addiction.

  6. I lost my younger brother to a heroin overdose in September 2021. We lost our dad to suicide in October 1991, and almost 30 years later my world was shattered again. I have always felt somehow judged because of how they met their end, for years I would joke when people asked me how my dad died “oh, you know, he stopped breathing, the usual thing.” I’ve resolved to deal with my brothers death differently, but those of us who live this know about the facial reactions, the words that are not said when people ask, and we tell them. Much love to all of us who carry this burden, but also manage to carry on.

  7. Thank you! I lost my brother in September. I’m so swept up in my parents’ emotions I forget I have my own sometimes.
    My brother was 28.

  8. Thank you for this. I feel alone and unable to find a support group in my area for this kind of thing. I’ve been struggling with my younger brothers death just 5 months ago and with his birthday just a few days away, I feel it even more.
    Your post helped me feel like I wasn’t alone. Thank you

    • It can feel so isolating Shawna, and I am so sorry to hear that you’ve had a tough time finding the support you need. Your local hospice organization may offer free counseling services for those going through something similar. You are not alone Shawna—sending love your way.

    • I lost my brother just 2 weeks ago he lived with me for the last 5 years of his life. I begged him to go to rehab and he wouldn’t even try. Before his death he had overdosed before and it came as a shock when I found him because I never knew him to be on opiates mainly just uppers. I keep replaying in my mind the last 5 years where I had to have missed something. I loved my brother with all my heart he leaves a beautiful daughter and the worse part is my father died of an over dose in 2009. They both died the same way and it just breaks my heart. I’m stricken with grief even after the first time when I was able to save him. I feel bad because I don’t think I’ll ever be happy again. I feel like a piece of me died when he died. I feel guilt, pain and anger. I never thought this day would come but I new he had a substance abuse problem. I just wanted him to follow my footsteps and be successful he was such a smart guy and charming. He was just hard headed and thought he was invincible. No one can kick this stuff by themselves even if they say they can they are lying to you. They have to seek sobriety and they need help. I feel bad for his twin… he as well was facing substance abuse but checked himself into rehab when I laid it on him. He’s doing better but after this idk I’m worried I’ll loose him too.

  9. Anna,

    I am currently coping with the loss of my brother from an opioid addiction as well. Thank you for sharing your story.

  10. Thank you very much for this piece.  It sums up my thoughts and feelings regarding loss and addiction exactly.  I lost my brother 2 years ago of a drug overdose; he was 30.  I’ve actually taken to telling people “he died in his sleep,” rather than to see the smug look they get when told it was drugs.  He was my best friend, and I miss him everyday.  I hope that one day, people can look at those who are addicts, and instead of seeing the problem, see the person.

  11. Thanks for writing this, Shannon. I’m so sorry for your loss. It must have been really frustrating to read all those reports about Amy Winehouse’s death, many of which are written with no experience of drug addiction. I’m in London at the moment and the press has absolutely gone nuts with the amount of coverage, some of which is just ridiculous. Thankfully there are also people, like you, who are highlighting how awful and soulless some of the perspectives are.

    I was chatting with a psychologist friend a few weeks ago about why people are often so openly judgemental of fat people and why it has become more and more socially acceptable to publicly comment on and ridicule them. She was talking about how society has come to view lack-of-control as one of the key failings of a human being. Like you said, people who eat/drink/take drugs too much are bringing any consequences upon themselves – it’s their fault because they won’t summon the willpower to limit themselves. It’s a really sad phenomenon that addictions aren’t seen as a mental disorder in the same way that something like schizophrenia is, an affliction that someone suffers from rather than a fault of character. My friend was saying that part of the reason for this is that people are aware that they too could be completely hedonistic in their lifestyle and put an immense amount of energy into avoiding excess and ensuing consequences; addiction is perceived as a personal responsibility instead of a societal problem. I think many of the reactions to Winehouse’s death (and deaths from addictions in general) come from that ‘personal problem’ place; it’s the same place that houses the idea that addicts will just “pull themselves together” when they hit “rock bottom”. I think community compassion and intervention need to be available and offered immediately and continually, because sometimes “rock bottom” is death, as your brother so sadly experienced.

    Anyway, apologies for rambling…guess I feel quite strongly about the subject. I think it’s lovely that you’ve integrated the memory of your brother into your life by thinking of him when you see the world’s beautiful vistas; it’s such a positive method of dealing with his loss. It’s sad that more people can’t channel that positivity and goodwill toward their fellow human beings. Thanks again for putting it out there.

  12. So beautiful, Shannon. I have to say, I was shocked that the one person I reached out to about Amy (I said something along the lines of it being so sad to die so young), and he was like, no, it’s not sad. It was more biting than that; I don’t remember and deleted. I actually felt sucker-punched that people could feel that way about human life. I’m so sorry for your loss and thank you for writing this.

    • Thank you so much for writing these words. I lost my baby brother (34) to addiction on March 25th. I’m not sure how to handle all the emotions that come with this. He battled with addiction for 18 years and it was torture for us also. I was always panicked if my phone rang at odd hours because in the back of my mind I was waiting for the day that the call would come and he would be gone.
      Addicts are people – like said earlier it is not a flaw of character, rather a mental disorder that has very little help available and it outrages me the way addicts are perceived. Like his life was meaningless because he was an addict. I wish with every ounce of my being that I could hug him one last time and tell him how much I love him.

    • This brought so many tears to my eyes. I lost my sister yesterday to heroin. She was only 26. She was my best friend. I’ve been looking for something, anything to help me understand how to cope with this. This needs to be stopped.

      • I am so incredibly sorry for your loss. I lost my only brother in 2020 to a fentanyl overdose and no one could have ever prepared me for the hurricane of grief, anger, fear, sadness. I knew how it would end, but I didn’t really think it would happen to us. But then it did. I don’t have the words to help because there are no words to fix it. The only way to get thru is to experience the loss and man does it hurt like hell. It’s been almost 3 years for me. I just want you to know that you are not alone in this. Your pain is seen and heard by those of us who know what it’s like to experience such a devastating life altering loss and those of us who know your sisters life was more meaningful and important than her struggles addiction. Again, I am so sorry you have to experience this.

  13. Beautiful post Shannon and really relevant and true words. Thank you for being brave enough to write it and allow us to think in a different way. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  14. Shannon, this post is so beautiful. I am sorry for your loss. I didn’t know that you lost your brother. He was so young and I know that it must have been (and still is difficult) for you. Your message rings true, everyone deserves compassion and humanity and I know that this article will hopefully change many people’s perception. I applaud your bravery in writing this, it must have been an emotional post to write, but thank you for sharing it with us all. Dave and I are thinking of you and looking forward to seeing you again soon.

  15. Wow, I wasn’t emotionally prepared for this post.  I too have a brother that has battled with drugs his whole life.  He is such a toxic person that I had to let him go from my life and in a way it was a death.  I miss him so much.  I’m so unbelievably sorry for you loss — there are no words.  If you EVER need to talk, know that I’m just en email away!

    • Andi, isn’t it something, to let go of someone who is alive . . . I’ve done it myself, am doing it now . . . I applaud your decision, and pray for your Peace

  16. I think you’re really brave to share this, Shannon. My uncle died of a drug overdose and addiction runs in my family on both sides, and it’s something that’s present in my mind a lot when I read about people like Amy Winehouse or your brother. 

  17. Niether was I.  Emotionally prepared for this.  The layers that compose our emotional skeletons are so complex, more than outsiders realize.  I wrestled with the same reactions on mental illness.  I’d be on a city bus and see an older woman step on who was clearly existing in her own head, homeless and wandering, meanwhile teenage boys would snicker and make “crazy” jokes. What those kids didn’t know is I saw my mother in her.  If it wasn’t for us (her kids) she likely would have been that same woman, boarding a bus and being judged and marginalized.  With nowhere to retreat.  

    Any illness that is difficult to grasp, whether addiction or mental illness has continually dug up polarizing, intense emotions… Some people just don’t know how to handle it until you’ve been in that position.  

    I applaud you for always honouring your brother’s memory and turning his life into something valuable and beautiful, even if nobody else did. 

  18. You have touched on so many of my feelings in the past few days. After Amy Winehouse’s death, I noticed a lot of people judging others for their grief or for not prioritizing the Norway shooting over an addict’s passing. In my mind, grief is grief and loss is loss and we need to extend compassion to the person who died and those who love him/her and have lived, regardless of the circumstances of one’s death. Thank you for this soulful, beautiful view into a very complex issue — and for the incredibly salient reminders on humanity.

  19. Your story was so genuine and so moving. I keep trying to think of something to say that will make things better, but I don’t think those words exist. I know what it’s like to watch someone you love die.

    Regarding Amy Winehouse, you make an excellent point in that people on the Internet are not showing enough compassion. She’s dead. How much more “punishment” for being a druggie does she need? People do need to look beyond the drugs, which, as you point out, are probably just a symptom of a bigger problem.

    But if I’m being completely candid, I have to admit I feel angry at Amy Winehouse for being dead. It’s NOT because I think she deserved to die; it’s because I think she deserved to live. I guess my anger is a misplaced way of dealing with grief — which is a little odd for me since I’m usually not affected by celebrities — but there it is. So maybe some of those random people who leave mean comments on the Internet are like that, simply angry to have lost someone they still really want to be alive.

  20. I offer our condolences. I have yet to experience a close family loss, but it’s still devastating for us to think of such a thing happening.  Thank you for making the difficult choice of sharing such a personal emotional experience.  You have a message that is close to your heart and it’s important that you share it, as you have. 

  21. No one deserves to be judged by anyone else in this world – life as an addict is difficult enough. I lost someone very close to me, a family member, as an indirect (barely) result of addiction and it would break my heart to hear someone else’s condemnation or flippant comments about that person’s life choices. I think it’s very easy for people to make anonymous comments online or to be cold or distant and callous with regards to someone they’ve never met. It’s cowardly. I’ve also been disgusted by some of the things I’ve heard people say about Winehouse this week. Unacceptable. May you find peace and comfort dealing with your own loss – your post is haunting and beautiful.  ~Andrea.

  22. I’m shocked and disgusted at how the media is treating Amy Winehouse’s death–like you said, as if she “brought it on herself.” Just this morning on the radio, someone said that the lesson to be learned from this was that you have to really have to want to be loved, that you have love yourself enough to change. Addiction is a disease, one that deserves to be treated with the same compassion as the way we treat cancer patients or people with mental illness. Thank you for sharing such a personal story that I’m sure must have been difficult to open up to the world–beautifully written. 

  23. I’m so sorry for your loss, Shannon. I can’t imagine losing my brother at such a young age. It’s troubling to me, too, that more and more, people posting on the Internet are becoming dehumanized. There’s no sensitivity filter, no empathy for other human beings. It’s bad enough when people use the anonymity of the Internet to make insulting comments about the way someone looks. But the response to Winehouse’s death has been really vicious. Her family is going to see all of those comments and it’s going to compound their pain. That’s not okay. My greatest fear is that these same people who are so desensitized to the suffering of others online are going to carry that over into their “real” lives and if that happens, the human race is completely doomed. Thank you so much for sharing this very personal story.

  24. I don’t know you, but I wish I could hug you tight. My heart aches for you, your loss, the pain you must feel at the judgmental condemnation of others who don’t understand. I’m so glad you were able to take time alone to feel whatever you needed to feel when you needed it most. I hope your heart continues to heal and grow stronger.

  25. Beautifully written Shannon. I am truly sorry for your loss. Shared humanity is sort of the whole purpose of being here, isn’t it?

  26. Yes, Shannon . . . Beautifully and bravely done.  I’ve added (as the brother of a manic depressive/bi-polar/borderline-schizofrenic/drug-user-abuser) my own thoughts to many Winehouse chats since her death.  These “27-er’s” shared many things, and almost – to my mind – least of all, drug addiction.  They shared being consummate creators/artist’s, and the very high incidence of mental illness in the artistic/creative community cannot be forgotten.  As a recovering alcoholic myself, I remember the first steps I took down a steep flight of stairs in San Francisco, to my first AA meeting, in tears, thinking (about alcohol) – “This is just a symptom . . . the tip of something larger . . . ”  I pray for you, for your parents, any siblings, for your brother – Peace.  

  27. Beautiful and sad. Thank you for sharing this with us, Shannon. And I’m so very sorry.

    And I’ve felt angry this week, regarding the reaction to Amy Winehouse’s death. I’ve felt disgusted at the comparisons with what’s happened in Norway, where I’ve been told “they were innocents – she *chose* her end”. And I’ve felt repulsed at what’s too often being said, the utterly heartless “she was a junkee – so what?”.

    None of us should feel comfortable at writing another human being off like that.

  28. This is a really moving post.  I cannot imagine dealing with that type of loss.  Thank you for sharing.

  29. A beautiful tribute, Shannon. It’s true, too often we don’t offer sympathy to those who battle addiction. We don’t allow ourselves to understand how difficult walking in the shoes of an addict must be. It’s easier to assign blame than to give mercy when it comes to something we don’t understand. I doubt there is a single addict out there that would ‘choose’ to have their burden. We should consider ourselves blessed when we look at our own health and not let the gratitude for that blind us from the struggles of others.


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