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Madelyn Linsenmeir was a born performer, with a beautiful singing voice that stopped people on the street. She was “hilarious, and warm, and fearless.” She was a daughter, sister and more proudly, a mother to a young son for whom she tried to kick her opioid addiction.
Linsenmeir’s family opened up about emotional and physical details that claimed the life of the 30-year-old single mother in a powerful and remarkably honest obituary that has humanized the destructive and heartbreaking struggle addiction wreaks on its victims and the people who love them.
The obituary, originally published in Vermont’s Burlington Free Press, has since gone viral, its rawness resonating deeply with readers and raising awareness about addiction’s complexities.
“It is impossible to capture a person in an obituary, and especially someone whose adult life was largely defined by drug addiction. To some, Maddie was just a junkie — when they saw her addiction they stopped seeing her. And what a loss for them,” the obituary said.
Linsenmeir died Oct. 7, in a hospital while in custody of Massachusetts police, said Kate O'Neill, the sister who penned the obituary. She died with her family nearby.
"She was addicted to drugs, so my largest fear really was that she would die from her disease, and yet it still came as a shock when she did," O'Neill told TODAY.
The family knew they wanted to be honest about Linsenmeir's addiction when they shared the news about her death, O'Neill said.
"It was such a part of her adult life that not talking about it wouldn't have been appropriate, (nor) honored her legacy," she said.
O'Neill described her sister as someone who loved to sing and who, as a youth, traveled the world with a dance and music troupe. She also loved to swim, ski and snowboard.
But when she was 16, Linsenmeir moved with her parents from Vermont to Florida to attend a performing arts school. “Soon after, she tried OxyContin for the first time at a high school party, and so began a relationship with opiates that would dominate the rest of her life," according to her obituary.
After Linsenmeir gave birth to a son, Ayden, in 2014, “she transformed her life to mother him.”
“Maddie tried harder and more relentlessly to stay sober than we have ever seen anyone try at anything. But she relapsed and ultimately lost custody of her son, a loss that was unbearable,” O'Neill wrote in the obit.
In the past two years, Linsenmeir’s addiction brought her “to places of incredible darkness” filled with actions that “exponentially increased her pain and shame.” But she raised her family's hopes during the 12 days she spent with them over the summer, swimming, watching Disney movies and enjoying family dinners.
“We believed as we always did that she would overcome her disease and make the life for herself we knew she deserved. We believed this until the moment she took her last breath,” the obituary said. “But her addiction stalked her and stole her once again. Though we would have paid any ransom to have her back, any price in the world, this disease would not let her go until she was gone.”
O'Neill told TODAY she and her family never expected the overwhelming response they received from the obituary, which they placed in the local newspaper. They also shared it on Facebook hoping to inform people in Linsenmeir's addiction recovery circles. The outpouring of support included messages from others around the world, some from families who lost loved ones to addiction, and others from people struggling to stay clean.
"I got a message yesterday from somebody who said he had been clean for 18 years, and he was going to stay sober that day for Maddie. That means everything," said O'Neill.
"It's just been really wonderful because when you're going through this, you often feel so alone. This made us realize we're not alone, and that's the bittersweet part of it. Part of why it's had this reaction is because this disease touches so many people."
In the obituary, O'Neill urged people to treat those battling addiction with compassion and understanding.
“If you are reading this with judgment, educate yourself about this disease, because that is what it is. It is not a choice or a weakness,” it read. “And chances are very good that someone you know is struggling with it, and that person needs and deserves your empathy and support.”
O'Neill said her sister felt constantly judged, even by those who were supposed to offer support.
"People with addiction can feel that, and it makes them scared to get help. When you're in the hospital, and a doctor finds out you're an IV drug user, and the disdain on his face is so obvious? That's just wrong," she said.
"No one wakes up one day and says, 'I want to be a heroin addict.' No little girl aspires to grow up and be a junkie. The idea that this is a choice is just absurd, and it needs to stop."
Opioids, which include heroin and other painkillers, are the main sources for overdose deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They contributed to more than 42,000 overdose deaths, or about 66 percent of alldrug overdoses, the federal agency reported.
A memorial service for Linsenmeir will be held this Sunday. The full obituary can be read here.