John Prine, the Opioid Epidemic, and the Death of My Sister

Recently, my friend Scott Elliott, pastor at La Grange Church of Christ, shared a new music video for the song Summer’s End by John Prine, which I recommend you watch all the way through before reading further.

Scott, with his typical eloquence and pastoral acumen, offered these comments:

This video from John Prine is heartbreaking. It is a reminder that we live in a broken world, and we all long for everything to be made right. We long for home, and not just our imperfect understanding of home. We long for home as it should be. We long for a home where that which has been lost is restored. We long for a home where sin and death are words that mean nothing to us because they no longer exist.

If you are struggling with addiction, you are not alone. If you are depressed, you are not alone. If you are hurting, you are not alone. If you are lonely, you are not alone. There are people all around you who love you and care for you. Reach out to someone and find help. We are on this journey together.

“For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” (Hebrews 11:14-16)

Scott’s post, and Prine’s video, completely hijacked my day. I started weeping in a corner of Doubleshot Coffee. I’ve revisited the video countless times since, and I weep harder every time I see it (at this point I’m just ugly crying). I’m ashamed to admit, however, that I didn’t figure out why it had such an impact on me until the third time I watched it.

My little sister, Crystal Ann, died of an opioid overdose on January 16, 2011. She was 28 years old. Crystal was 14 months younger than me, and my only biological sibling. Apart from being siblings, though, we had very little in common. The majority of our interactions (at least the ones I remember) involved fighting – often physically. In high school, due to a part-time job and my music, I was rarely home (she wasn’t either, for that matter), and we saw each other less and less.

As adults, our interactions became more and more rare, so that we saw each other two or three times a year, tops. I knew from Mom that Crystal was struggling with substance abuse and addiction, including several hospital stays and multiple attempts at rehabilitation. The Sunday that she died, she left a voicemail for me, which was relatively rare. Even more surprising (given my poor record at returning messages), I called back and left a voicemail, in which I told her that I loved her.

I have no way of knowing whether or not she heard that voicemail. I hope so.

At Crystal’s visitation, with the help of my Aunt Janet and my granddad (Paw-Paw), I prayed the Psalter over her body; it took a little less than four hours. Later, when I began to include the lighting of candles as part of my prayers, I began to pray for God’s mercy regarding Crystal when I lit those candles. As Charlie and I (and now E., and soon, Judah) light candles when we enter the church, we pray for Aunt Crystal first, every time. In the Orthodox Church, prayer for loved ones who have died isn’t about time in purgatory, or indulgences, but is first and foremost an expression of love for our deceased. It is founded on a belief that while God cannot be bribed or manipulated, he certainly hears our genuinely impassioned pleas for mercy on behalf of those we truly love.

In any case, although I pray regularly for Crystal and think of her frequently in the context of my boys’ relationships with one another, I didn’t realize that I was weeping for her (or, to be more precise and honest, for us) until I’d watched Prine’s video a few times. I didn’t realize how powerful the concept of home is for me, and how much my little sister plays a role in what “home” means to me. I think that I’ve wept more, and harder, for Crystal in the last couple of days than I did when she died.

The loss of my sister has absolutely impacted how I think of death, what death means, and the significance of Christ’s victory over death by means of his crucifixion and resurrection. I hear and contemplate the many versions of the Paschal Troparion (“Christ is risen from the dead/trampling down death by death/and upon those in the tombs bestowing life”) year-round; I am frequently reminded of the words of St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal Homily; I hear the Christ’s victory proclaimed loudly in the music Johnny Cash made at the end of his life:

I hear these hymns and songs, and I am filled with hope – hope in God’s mercy, in Christ’s faith, and in his perfect love. My prayer for those who have fallen asleep is that taught to me by my Church:

O God of spirits and of all flesh, who hast trampled down Death, and made powerless the Devil, and given life to Thy world: Do Thou, the same Lord, give rest to the soul of Thy departed servant, in a place of brightness, a place of verdure, a place of repose, whence all sickness, sorrow, and sighing have fled away. Pardon every sin which she hath committed, whether by word, or deed or thought: for Thou art good, and lovest mankind; for there is no man who liveth and sinneth not, and Thou only art beyond sin, and Thy righteousness is to all eternity, and Thy law is truth. . . .

May the immortal King, who hath dominion over the living and the dead, and who rose again from the dead, Christ our true God, through the intercessions of His all-immaculate and all-blameless holy Mother; of the holy, glorious and all-laudable apostles; of our venerable and God-bearing Fathers; of the holy and glorious forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; of the holy and righteous friend of Christ, Lazarus of four-days, and of all the Saints, establish the soul of His servant, departed this life, in the dwelling-place of the righteous, give her rest in the bosom of Abraham, and number her among the righteous, and have mercy on us, and save us, forasmuch as He is good and loveth mankind.

May thy memory be eternal, O our ever-memorable sister who art worthy of blessedness.