Cause of death, overdose: An East Lyme family's honest obituary
East Lyme — For members of the Majchrzak family, it was a no-brainer: The only way to do their son justice in death would be to tell the truth about his life.
After all, as much as the 24-year-old’s big personality and love for sports defined him, so, too, did his battle with addiction — and by all accounts, Daniel “Danny” Majchrzak fought like hell.
“If we just said his death was ‘unexpected,’ that would be doing him a great disservice,” said Chris Majchrzak, his mother. “Because he struggled with this and he tried so hard to overcome it.”
Last Feb. 3, the Majchrzaks got the call they had been dreading for nearly six years. Records show Danny had carfentanil, a drug intended to tranquilize large animals, in his system when he died. As first responders across the country have noted, the standard two doses of naloxone do little to reverse an overdose of that drug, which is an estimated 100 times more powerful than heroin.
When she sat down to write her son’s obituary, Chris was at a loss. But then the words poured out, “like it was coming from Danny.”
Her son loved basketball. He could talk to anyone, from any walk of life. He gave to others habitually. And he struggled with addiction.
“Addiction is a chronic brain disease that can be managed with treatment,” the obituary reads. “It is not a moral failing or character flaw. ... We ask, in Danny's memory, that you reach out to someone who may be struggling. Grab their hand. Don't let go. Never Give Up.”
At Danny’s memorial service, his father, Mark Majchrzak, recalled, one woman said she wished she had written the obituary of her child the same way. The family got cards from strangers, too, thanking them for their candor.
“We knew people would talk about it,” Chris continued. “If we didn’t come out with it and be honest, they would think we were ashamed of him. And we weren’t. We loved him."
“We were so proud of all the strength he had.”
‘174 times a day’
The Majchrzaks’ East Lyme home used to be slumber party central.
“We always had a crew of kids here,” Chris recalled. “One of my favorite memories is the pile of boys all over the living room like a pack of puppies. I loved that.”
But as Danny fell deeper into the cycle, ultimately transitioning from OxyContin to heroin, that changed.
Once welcoming to all, Mark and Chris started telling their daughters, Caroline and Sarah, that perhaps a sleepover wasn’t the best idea. While he was using, Danny was unpredictable. Who knew what might happen?
Few took Danny’s fall harder than Caroline, four years his junior. His struggle consumed her high school years — a time that can be difficult enough as it is.
“We were really close when that whole thing started,” Caroline said, fighting back tears. “I always knew when he was having problems again. He would give me the guilt trip, tell me not to tell our parents. Of course I threw him under the bus ... but it was because I cared for him. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him.”
For Mark, sports were a point of bonding with his son, a standout East Lyme High School basketball player who loved the Michigan Wolverines and the Buffalo Bills. He admired the way his son could walk up to anyone and impress them with his Encyclopedia-like knowledge of the game.
“He had a lot of qualities I wish I had,” Mark said. “Now every season, whether it’s basketball, football, whatever ... those are sad things to me.”
“That’s staggering,” Chris said. “His loss has impacted us so profoundly. To think that’s happening 174 times a day, every day, all over this country ... that’s mind-blowing and unacceptable. We have to do something to stop it.”
A rude awakening
Mark and Chris didn’t always understand the concept of opioid addiction.
When Danny admitted he began using Oxy the summer before he was to play basketball for UConn Avery Point, his parents asked, “Why don’t you just stop?”
When he said he had tried but couldn’t, they sent him to a 30-day treatment facility in New Jersey, thinking the pill use would be a small bump in the road.
“He was himself again,” Chris said, “and so excited to be able to come back and get back into school and his life. We didn’t think anything of it. We thought, 'OK, we’re good now.'”
In reality, he relapsed within days of his return.
“I think that’s what everybody thinks: ‘Why can’t they just stop?’” Chris said. “It took us a long time to get that it’s a disease. Yes, there’s a physical dependency to the substance. But it’s also rewired your brain in a different way.”
She recalled the words of the first addiction counselor the family visited.
“He said, ‘You will never understand the way an addict thinks,’” Chris said. “'You’ll never get it. And without help, he’s not going to get better.’”
Danny looks out over the Majchrzaks’ living room, immortalized as a portrait. Nearby sits a candle bearing his likeness, lit only for special occasions.
His smile recalls the boy the Majchrzaks knew so well. A boy who, when he was 4, got a gift covered in quarters from his uncle. A boy who stuffed those quarters in his cargo pants pockets and asked to be taken to buy Pokémon cards. A boy who saw a homeless man on the way — his sister read the man’s sign out loud — and demanded his mom turn the car around.
Danny gave the man every last quarter.
At his best, Danny was 14 months sober. He had found success at a south Florida treatment facility called Fellowship Living. He had a new group of friends and a girlfriend, too. Standing 5 feet 11 inches tall, his intensive workouts had pushed him to 225 pounds. He thought he had figured out the addiction thing, and his parents thought so, too.
At his worst, he spent the night on a Florida beach, strung out and alone. He wouldn't answer his phone but texted back and forth with his mother.
“I kept saying, ‘Please go in (to treatment).’ He said, ‘I can’t do it for you, Ma. I gotta do it for me,’” she recalled.
Desperate, Chris went around the house, frantically snapping pictures of Danny at all ages. She sent each one to him, and with each, four words: Do it for him.
“He said, ‘You’re breaking my heart, Ma,’” Chris continued, tears falling. “I said, ‘You’re breaking mine.’”
That was about two years ago. Though he did re-enter treatment, it didn’t stick. The rest of his life would be spent in an endless cycle: three or four months of sobriety, relapse, repeat.
A month before he died, Danny briefly returned home, perhaps aware his addiction was at a breaking point. But Florida and the friends he had made there quickly drew him back.
On his return, he again looked to the facility that so often had helped him get back on track, but there were no beds. Two days later, on a Friday, he overdosed at his girlfriend's house while she was at work. Detectives called his parents that night.
"Funny thing was we had texted back and forth on Thursday; he told me he knew what he had to do, he had a plan and just needed me to be the shoulder he could lean on...," his father said. "One of the last words he said to me was 'I'm proud to call you my Dad.'"
Losing a whole generation
Nationally, more and more families are opting to include addiction in their loved ones’ obituaries. Locally, the Majchrzaks said, the trend has been slower to catch on.
Chris believes talking about what’s uncomfortable is the best way to remove the stigma that’s keeping most families quiet. Still, she acknowledged, “You’ve got to do what’s right for you and what you can live with.”
Through the course of their ordeal, Danny’s parents developed several ideas about how to move forward.
Chris said education around the matter should start at a younger age. Kids, she said, should understand that heroin and opioid pain pills have the same chemical makeup. And kids should be equipped with the skills to turn down drugs in the face of peer pressure, rather than simply being told to say no.
Mark believes there should be better oversight of the internet, where, much to his disbelief, it’s possible to buy fentanyl or carfentanil and have it shipped.
Both called for better monitoring of sober houses and the treatment centers that refer people to those houses. They noted the region’s lack of facilities and emphasized that medication-assisted treatment — a method that combines medications such as methadone or Suboxone with therapy — should be more eagerly pursued.
“If this was a war and there were this many casualties, people would be flipping out,” Mark said. “It’s a whole generation that we’re losing.”