PORTLAND, Maine — Ryan Bossie’s obituary could have said he died “unexpectedly.” But the 26-year-old from Caribou, a reserved and inquisitive man who took pride in working with his hands, saw death coming.
Bossie died on Jan. 30 from a presumed heroin overdose. He had cheated death during six previous overdoses, but the addiction that gripped more than half of his life finally claimed it.
The first draft of his obituary simply stated that Ryan had died, his brother Andrew Bossie of Portland recalls. But Andrew — who had witnessed Ryan’s battle to overcome the disease firsthand after his younger brother moved to Portland to get clean — added the reason why.
“I just said I don’t think we should be ashamed of this,” said Andrew Bossie, 31.
“It’s better than sweeping it under the rug and I think if it helps someone else, then fantastic,” he added.
The rest of the family agreed to take the rare step of disclosing addiction as the cause of death. Ryan, the youngest of three siblings, had spoken openly about his struggle and attempts at recovery, his older brother said.
“We talked about Ryan’s death before he died,” Bossie said. “That was really important, I feel, to being able to keep our family close and have Ryan feel supported.”
Acknowledging the reason behind Ryan’s passing kept that honesty alive.
”Ryan Douglas Bossie died in Portland,” his obituary read, “after losing a hard-fought battle with addiction.”
“It was truly a struggle,” Bossie said. “I hope that by including that maybe it helps someone else just a little bit, that their story has a different ending.”
Death by drugs is an all-too-common ending in Maine. In 2013, overdoses and related abuse claimed 176 Maine lives. Drugs killed more of the state’s residents than car crashes that year.
Of those drug deaths, 105 were attributable to prescription opioids and 34 were caused by heroin, according to the Maine attorney general’s office. Heroin deaths have risen dramatically since 2011, when the drug killed seven people in Maine.
As doctors prescribe prescription narcotics — such as OxyContin and Percocet — more cautiously and drug makers produce harder-to-abuse formulations, the street supply dwindles, experts say. That drives up prices and spurs some addicts to turn to cheaper and potentially much more potent heroin.
Further upping the stakes is the increasing presence of heroin laced with fentanyl, a painkiller that’s 50 times more powerful and dangerously drives heroin to the brain “on a rocket booster,” as one substance abuse expert described.
The Bossies are still awaiting Ryan’s toxicology results and remain unsure whether fentanyl played a role in his overdose.
“I talked to him about the statistics,” Bossie recalls. “I said, ‘Ryan, when you use there’s one of two different paths you’re going to be on — you’re either going to end up in jail or you’re going to end up dead. And he knew that. But this was an illness.”
Ryan’s death bears striking similarities to the demise of another young man whose frank obituary has circulated widely on social media. Alex Michael Hesse of Cincinnati, Ohio, also 26, died the day before Ryan as a result of heroin addiction. Both men had brothers named Andrew and fathers named Rick.
“Alex had a loving and supporting family and had everything a young man could want. But drugs took a hold of his life, changed him, and destroyed so much of the hope and promise in his future,” Hesse’s obituary reads.
His online obituary has generated nearly 4,000 hits on Facebook and crashed the server at the funeral home, said his mother, Penny Hesse. People from across the country reached out to the family to share their experiences with addiction and loss, she said.
“Many people said they were ashamed to say why” their loved ones died, Hesse said. “It doesn’t discriminate.”
The family detailed Alex’s struggle in the obituary in hopes of shedding light on the issue and saving even one family from the same devastation, she said.
Alex, one of four siblings, was a music lover and high school athlete just one semester away from graduating with a psychology degree, she said.
“This happens in every neighborhood, whether you live in the slums or you live in a nice home in the suburbs,” Hesse said.
The Bossies also heard from many others touched by addiction, both in their community and beyond, Andrew said. Five weeks after Ryan’s death, the family still feels the disclosure was the right choice, he said.
“It was not only a public dialogue with Ryan’s obituary, but it was also a very personal dialogue that existed between Ryan and those closest to him in his life,” Bossie said.
Ryan, who also had a stepbrother, would have approved of their decision, the family believes. Andrew Bossie’s partner even once asked Ryan what he’d want his obituary to say, as Ryan cycled between months-long bouts of sobriety and descents into abuse.
“This is how open we were about what was going on,” Bossie said. “Ryan said, ‘I don’t know.’ But I think the more Ryan could be honest with people … it allowed us to move on to other things, like his hopes and dreams.”
Ryan’s obituary relates more than simply how he died. A Caribou High graduate who hoped to complete his welding certification at Northern Maine Community College, Ryan worked maintaining properties up north and later in Portland.
Brenda Norris, who hired Ryan to repair her flooded basement, said he loved to learn and paid close attention to detail. Charmed the first time she met him, she got to know Ryan as he repaired the basement and fixed her kitchen cabinets, she said.
Norris continued her relationship with Ryan even after learning about his addiction, when he landed behind bars for using drugs again. She and Andrew Bossie, who since have grown close, visited Ryan in jail together.
Two days before he died, while working in her kitchen, Ryan asked Norris what she was most afraid of, she said.
“It’s dying and leaving people that I love,” Norris told him. “I said, ‘What about you?’ and he said, ‘My addiction.’”
Even as he struggled, Ryan always offered a helping hand while expecting nothing in return, said his sister, Kaitlyn Umphrey of Wade. He played affectionately with her little Yorkie dog and eagerly awaited the day when Umphrey had children so he could share his love with nieces and nephews, she said.
“He was very loving,” said Umphrey, a nurse at Cary Medical Center. “He would do anything that you asked him.”
She just wishes her brother could meet her future kids one day, she said.
“He would be a really good uncle,” Umphrey said. “That’s one of the only regrets I have, that he’s not here to share with us the rest of his life.”