2018-02-15 / Local & State

Opioid Epidemic Has Addiction Revealed In Obituaries

By Clayton Over

SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) – The toll opioid addiction took on Miranda Ferguson is evident when her mother flips through family photos.

“ You could see how healthy and happy she was until she was introduced to that drug,’’ said Ann Marie Riggi-Hopkins, of Scranton. “As I progressed with the pictures, you could see how things dwindled. It just takes every part of your life away.’’

Raynor Bloom’s family was unaware of his opioid addiction until they received a call from his roommate. By then, it was too late.

“I can’t tell you how long he struggled with addiction,’’ said his mother, Lynn Bloom, of Dunmore.

Ferguson, 25, and Bloom, 29, were two of 69 people to die of drug overdoses in Lackawanna County last year, according to the most recent numbers posted to Overdose Free PA, a website that tracks county overdose information submitted by coroners. The 2017 number is expected to grow once all toxicology tests are completed. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, was the most common drug observed in toxicology tests, appearing in 36 cases.

Both Riggi-Hopkins and Lynn Bloom, who suspect fentanyl played roles in their children’s deaths, join a growing number of parents, both locally and nationally, to share their children’s struggles in candid obituaries.

Two or three years ago, this kind of openness in obituaries was unheard of, said Jim Hood, co-founder and CEO of Facing Addiction, a Danbury, Connecticut-based advocacy organization. He likened the stigma associated with the opioid epidemic to a time when cancer, HIV and AIDS causes of death were not included in obituaries.

That the obituaries are becoming more candid could be a reflection of how prevalent the epidemic is and an understanding that people are starting to look at addiction as an illness, he said.

“I think it’s cathartic for parents but also helpful for the people next door, to spread the word that this is a pernicious illness that is stealing our youth,’’ said Hood, who lost his son to an overdose five years ago. “The more people understand that, the more people might do something about it.’’

According to Legacy.com, there were hundreds of obituaries published nationwide last year that included information on the struggles and dangers of heroin and opioid addiction. The Sunday Times published about a dozen obituaries last year that included information about a struggle with addiction or named an overdose as the cause of death.

Locally, those only started to appear within the last two years or so, said Christopher James, funeral director at Vanston & James Funeral Home in Scranton and James Wilson Funeral Home in Lake Ariel. Some families also are being open about it during viewings or funeral services, he said.

“The people who bring it to light are doing it out of genuine concern for other people,’’ James said. “I think that’s what folks want to do. They want to say, this is ultimately what will happen if you don’t get help.’’

Not suffering anymore

Riggi-Hopkins wanted her daughter’s obituary to give strength to those in recovery or family and friends grieving the loss of a loved one to addiction. The family also wanted to send a message that, with drugs like fentanyl on the streets, the problem is getting worse.

“The family wants to break the silence of addiction. To anyone reading this obituary, this demon is still out on the streets waiting to kill the next innocent suffering person thinking about using or having reservations. If we can save one or several lives to the sick and suffering and spare their families, we pray that breaking the silence of addiction works,’’ Ferguson’s obituary reads.

The response to the obituary was overwhelming, Riggi Hopkins said. She said she received many calls of thanks and the outpouring helped her grieve and heal.

Her daughter had a good life and was going places, she said. Ferguson was blessed with a strong work ethic and, despite a quiet demeanor, a love of working with people.

She got a job when she was a teenager and still in school, first at Gerrity’s on Meadow Avenue in Scranton, and later, at Hobby Lobby in Dickson City. People noticed her strong customer service skills, Riggi-Hopkins said. She started at the Dickson City store putting shelves together around the time it first opened and rose to department manager. There was talk of her managing her own store somewhere, she said.

She was a great mother, too, Riggi-Hopkins said. Ferguson gave birth to her daughter, Baylee, in 2011.

About two years after Baylee’s birth, something happened. Ferguson made a drastic change in friends and started acting differently, her mother said. Then, the physical changes started. She lost her job. Money went missing, Riggi-Hopkins said.

About a year before her death, Ferguson hit “rock bottom,’’ and came clean about her drug use, her mother said. She wanted help and to change for Baylee, she said.

Ferguson entered rehab at Marworth Treatment Center and completed the program, but relapsed a few weeks later. She returned and then spent three months in a sober house in Dallas.

Even after her daughter completed a more comprehensive program, Riggi- Hopkins said she never thought she was out of the woods in dealing with addiction.

“I do understand the disease, that it’s a one-day-at-a-time disease,’’ her mother said.

On Aug. 24, Riggi-Hopkins went with Ferguson to a job interview. She was hired. They shopped afterward and then Ferguson dropped her mother off at a friend’s house.

She didn’t return to pick her up and did not answer phone calls, Riggi-Hopkins said.

Riggi- Hopkins had a friend drive her home. She frantically ran upstairs to check on Baylee. Not finding her there, she ran to the basement where she found her daughter dead.

Baylee lay on top of her, asleep.

Beyond the anguish of losing her daughter, Riggi- Hopkins also had to explain to her granddaughter what happened. She sought help and the advice she received was to be honest.

“I told her mommy took a bad drug that stopped her heart and now she’s an angel in heaven,’’ Riggi-Hopkins said.

Baylee is doing well now, her grandmother said. The kindergartner takes piano and dance lessons. Riggi- Hopkins sees a lot of her daughter in Baylee, though the little girl is more outgoing.

They talk about what happened and the good memories of Ferguson almost daily, Riggi-Hopkins said.

“One thing I think that helps me is she’s not suffering anymore,’’ Riggi-Hopkins said.

Losing a generation

For their son’s obituary, the Blooms wanted to be honest and straightforward. They included that his cause of death was a heroin overdose.

“We felt that if we could make one person more aware or make one parent pay a little closer attention and notice something wrong, speak up, ask about it, do something about it, that will make Raynor give the gift of life,’’ Lynn Bloom said.

The decision drew a mixed response from members of the family, Bloom said. Some applauded the decision and felt it was brave because it went against the norm. Others were upset and felt the obituary aired “dirty laundry,’’ she said.

She doesn’t regret the decision. The drug epidemic affects all parts of the community, regardless of race, class or socioeconomic status, and the only way to further shine a light on it is to be honest, Bloom said.

Acknowledging it helps de-stigmatize it. The less stigma there is, the more likely people will seek help, she said.

“My husband and I felt that at the time he passed away that his addiction did not define him,’’ Bloom said. “It is what killed him.’’

Her son “came in the world fighting’’ at a mere two pounds, 13 ounces in 1988, she said. He was so small, his father, Larry, was afraid to hold him.

As the years went by, he grew into a big man with a heart to match, she said. He grew up on Long Island, New York, and maintained lifelong friendships with elementary school pals made there, his mother said. He was a great brother to his siblings and had a special bond with his youngest brother, Joshua, 17. The family moved to Dunmore in 2007, and Raynor Bloom followed shortly thereafter.

He got a job at GoodFellas Pizza on South Main Avenue in West Scranton, first as a delivery driver and, ultimately, as a manager, Bloom said. When the store changed hands in June, and became West Side Food and Beer, the new management kept him. While there, he earned a reputation for generosity, geniality and hard work.

It was not uncommon for him to work 70-plus hours a week, Bloom said of her son. His final Facebook post, on Oct. 9, mentions an 87-hour work week.

When he had free time, he enjoyed playing video games and going to concerts with friends. He loved heavy metal music, especially Pantera. His taste in tunes proved a sharp juxtaposition to his kind, gentle, giving disposition, his mother said.

“ He was friendly and smiling and treated everyone the same,’’ she said.

Despite the long hours, he still found time to call home and spend time with family, his mother said. Sometimes he phoned to see what was for dinner, even if he didn’t plan on stopping by, she said with a laugh. He made it to the theater with his father and brother to see the latest “Star Wars’’ movies.

He did not display any physical changes that would denote drug use, she said.

On Oct. 17, Raynor’s roommate called the Blooms to tell them their son died of an overdose at his apartment.

His parents suspect fentanyl tinged heroin was responsible. His reasons for starting to take the drugs are a mystery, his mother said. He had some health issues, including sleeping disorders, she said, and it is possible he was self-medicating.

“It was something he kept secret from his friends and family,’’ she said. “The fact he was doing those drugs and working those kind of hours is mind-boggling.’’

For now, the family is trying to cope with their loss. His death hit Joshua hard and Bloom recently started attending a grief support group. She said she thinks there should be more resources for people – those dealing with addiction, those in recovery, police and first responders and grieving family and friends.

“We’re losing a generation to this and I don’t think anyone is realizing that,’’ she said.

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