Francine Brashier sits on a metal chair, clutching a set of skeleton keys.
“Do you know the Robert Hunter song, ‘Keys to the Rain?’” she asks. Without waiting for an answer, she recites a verse: “I went to inquire about how much pain/Was needed to purchase the keys to the rain.”
It’s long been a favorite of hers, but these days, she hears the song differently.
“I hold the keys to the rain,” she says, glancing at the set in her hand. “My daughter’s death bought them.”
A few feet away, Bea Lancellotti stands with a portrait of her son. It’s glued to a poster board with some words she picked to describe him: Son. Friend. Brother. Child of God. Addict.
Below his photo, a date: August 8, 2017. “I was sick, and I was upstairs laying down,” she says. “The doorbell rang. It was two Pittsburgh police officers.”
Jeanna Fisher stands nearby, holding a large stuffed bear that belonged to her daughter. “This was her teddy,” she says. “She loved animals. She wanted to be a vet.”
Until recently, Brashier, Lancellotti and Fisher didn’t know one another. They lost their children at different times and in different places: a spare bedroom in North Braddock; a house in Mt. Oliver; a bathroom at Point State Park. Under different circumstances, they might never have met.
But today, all three — along with more than 100 others — are gathered on the portico of Pittsburgh’s City-County Building, united in their grief. Despite their every effort, all three watched their loved ones fall further into opioid addiction. All three learned the crushing cycle of rehab, recovery and relapse. All three know the worry of waiting for a phone call, and the heartbreak when it finally comes. They’re here, on August 31, to mark International Overdose Awareness Day — and to tell their children’s stories in hopes of helping someone else.
“I want people to know that I’m grieving.”
“When I first found out my daughter Marley was an addict, I didn’t really tell anyone, except for a few close friends,” says Jeanna Fisher. “There’s a stigma, you know? You don’t know how or when or if you should talk about it.”
All that changed on April 9, when police found Marley unresponsive in a bathroom in Point State Park. She was 28. “Her death was reported on all over the news,” says Fisher. “She died in such a public way that there was no hiding from it anymore.”
Determined to learn how Marley spent her final days, Fisher got on Facebook and reached out to her daughter’s friends. She put up hundreds of fliers seeking information. In her public search for answers, she began to hear from other parents of addicts. “A lot of them are just like me,” she says. “They’re quiet about it. They feel like they don’t have anybody to talk to.”
The sheer numbers are astounding: In the United States, someone dies of a heroin overdose, on average, every 19 minutes. Since 2015, more than 1,300 people have died in Allegheny County alone, and experts expect that number to spike as additives like fentanyl and carfentanil become increasingly common.
“You might hear about a few deaths each week, if that,” says Fisher. “And it’s usually when someone’s found in horrendous circumstances, like Marley was. A lot of other deaths aren’t heard of or talked about, and their loved ones feel frustrated and alone.”
Fisher, who describes herself as naturally outspoken, decided to do something. “I want people to know that I’m grieving,” she says. “And I want to give all these other families a chance to tell their story.”
Inspired by the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial in Washington, D.C., she envisioned rows of chairs representing Pittsburgh’s lost lives. She launched an organization called Pittsburgh Won’t Forget U and invited victims’ families to submit items that would “fill” each seat. The result: a patchwork of photographs, poems, childhood toys and more, giving a human dimension to the area’s grim statistics.
“It’s about getting families together and acknowledging that their loved one died from this,” says Fisher. “I’m trying to create solidarity — to give families and friends some comfort in saying it out loud.”
“You realize that you’re not alone.”
Francine Brashier knows the power of that solidarity.
On July 13 of last year, she entered her spare bedroom to find her 30-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, dead of an overdose after a five-year struggle. They were supposed to go to a concert together. “Instead,” says Brashier, “I buried her.”
She describes Elizabeth as a “smart, intelligent nurse who made a really bad choice — the choice to use something outside of herself to feel better. She was a wonderful mother. She was a best friend. She was my daughter.”
She was also the fourth family member to die of an overdose since 2010. How does Brashier possibly move forward from so much loss?
“For the first few months [after Elizabeth’s death], I admit, I wanted to die,” she says. “I prayed every day that I would die. And on the one-year anniversary of Elizabeth’s death, God tried to answer that prayer: He gave me lung cancer. But it was to show me that the dying will live. I have to live for a while to tell Elizabeth’s story. To tell Marley’s story. These are our children.”