When Kathleen Errico of Haverhill found her 23-year-old daughter dead of a heroin overdose on April 2 — slumped over in bed, lips white, television turned on at 3:45 a.m. — a devastating, years-long struggle had ended.
The demons of opioid addiction finally took the life of Kelsey Endicott, the mother of a toddler who would soon turn 2. But Errico’s heart-rending discovery in the still of night also marked a remarkable beginning.
Within days, Errico wrote a death notice and delivered a eulogy that have been shared throughout the nation on social media and garnered international news coverage. Her words — of pain, endurance, and ultimately hope — have touched thousands of parents with core compassion for the person behind the addiction.
“The disease of addiction is merciless,” Errico wrote in the death notice. “It is up to us to open our minds and hearts to those who are still sick and suffering. Kelsey does not want us to cry for her. She wants us to fight for her.”
Errico’s words reflect the tragedy that has afflicted families in every part of Massachusetts. But what makes them uncommon is their unflinching acknowledgment that opioids invaded her home — “just your average Joe Schmo middle-class Americans,” Errico said in an interview.
Instead of using generic code words such as “died suddenly,” which appear in many death notices for opioid victims, Errico wrote and spoke bluntly of her daughter’s death in plain, painful terms.
“She turned to drugs to make her feel normal like everyone else. Heroin told her I can make you feel accepted,” Errico said April 8 at a funeral Mass at St. Michael’s Church in North Andover. “What it didn’t tell her was how it would devastate her family and tear it apart, how it would take her job and leave her penniless, how it would steal her son from her arms.”
The death notice and eulogy have been shared and forwarded among families from California to New England.
“What a wonderful message you have shared with the world by turning your own tragedy into a gift of hope for others,” Shannon F. of Houston wrote on the funeral home’s Facebook page. “I pray that Kelsey’s story and this picture of a beautiful young woman will give courage to many to fight for one more day, and then one more day, and one more after that.”
The up-front effort also drew praise from Kathy Day, a regional manager for Learn to Cope, the Massachusetts-based organization that provides support to families and others ravaged by the addiction of loved ones.
“By writing something like that, she’s opening the doors for others to get support and help,” Day said Thursday. “It’s absolutely an effort to help remove some of the stigma” that continues to surround opioid addiction.
Errico said she wrote the death notice in the hope that she could reach only one other addict, or one other family, with a simple acknowledgment that she, too, knows the pain of this disease.
Now, Errico said, “I can’t keep up with the Facebook messages I’m receiving, or the voice-mail messages on the phone. I can’t believe it.”
The path to Endicott’s death was a torturous one that took her from alcohol to marijuana to cocaine to heroin, Errico said. It involved an abusive boyfriend who beat Endicott when she was five months pregnant, a succession of failed attempts to get clean, and a baby whose morning-to-night needs could not displace his mother’s demons.
One night, when the baby was 4 months old, Endicott returned to her mother’s house at 3 a.m., the infant in tow, high on drugs after driving Errico’s car.
Furious and fearful, Errico called the state Department of Children and Families, and the child eventually went into foster care while Endicott lived on the streets. One night, she called her mother, pleading for a blanket because she was outside and cold.
“I’ve suffered in silence trying to deal with all those nights of not sleeping,” Errico told the Globe.
“I told Kelsey, ‘You know what’s going to happen,’ when the bad batches of heroin were coming around. ‘How could you think of using again?’ ”
For nearly 10 months, she resisted the cravings and became sober at HART House, a residential treatment facility in Tewksbury. Endicott was allowed weekend visits with her mother and stepfather, a two-tour veteran of Iraq, and in March was granted custody of her son again.
She had two months left before graduating from treatment, Errico said. On the evening of April 1, Errico and her husband attended a benefit dinner for the military at the Andover Country Club. The event took three hours, and Errico — always concerned about potential temptations — texted her daughter throughout the meal.
Endicott seemed sober when they returned, Errico said. The young woman helped herself to ice cream, chatted easily, and returned to her bedroom about 11:30 p.m.
“At 3:45 in the morning something woke me,” Errico recalled. “I shot out of bed. I heard the TV on. I knew.”
Less than a week later, Endicott was buried, and her son, Camden, now lives with Kathleen and Paul Errico.
“To the person who doesn’t understand addiction, she is just another statistic who chose to make a bad decision,” Errico said at the funeral. “I don’t care, though, because for the people who do understand, this was our baby, our youngest, our child, our daughter, and, as a mother, my everything.”