WORTHINGTON - When Angela Kennecke speaks at the Living Your Best Life event in Worthington next month, it will be just eight days shy of the one-year anniversary of her daughter’s death from fentanyl poisoning.
It’s not easy for anyone to talk about losing a loved one, and especially not easy for a grieving mother with a broken heart, but Kennecke does so with the hope of preventing another family from experiencing the kind of tragedy that has hit hers.
“The only thing we can control is our response,” said Kennecke. “I’m turning heartbreak into action.
“I want to replace judgement with compassion and punishment with treatment.”
Kennecke wants to spread the message that drug use and drug addiction can happen to anyone, and can affect any family.
“I tell everybody, this is your problem - this is all of our problems. We have to be doing something about it.”
And so, she speaks.
Kennecke will talk about her daughter, Emily Groth, who died May 16, 2018, after taking heroin unknowingly laced with fentanyl. There was enough poison in the dose to kill several people.
Emily was 21 when she died. The 2015 graduate of O'Gorman High School is described by her mother as intellectually and athletically gifted - a young woman who competed in gymnastics, track and dance, and had incredible artistic talent.
“She was always creating - she was a very creative person,” Kennecke said. “She’s also a risk taker. That may be something that contributed to her not being afraid to try new things, which included drugs, but that’s just kind of what I think.”
Emily began experimenting with marijuana in high school. She dumped her long-time friends in favor of someone who glorified the marijuana culture, Kennecke said. As a parent, she could see her daughter was changing, but she said her influence was far less than those of Emily’s friends.
“It started with teenage rebellion,” Kennecke said. “I’ve talked to so many parents with children who overdosed, and for so many it was the same - it starts with marijuana.”
In Emily’s case, it progressed from marijuana to anti-anxiety pills and then something harder. She refused to tell her parents what she was taking, but they knew something was wrong.
“We were planning an intervention for her,” Kennecke said. “She was in denial.”
During her May 8 presentation in Worthington, she will talk about the shame and stigma that goes along with addiction, and how addicts believe they have everything under control.
“Nobody wants to be an addict,” she said.
Yet, each day in the United States, nearly 200 people are dying from drug use. Kennecke wants people to know it’s happening everywhere, from metropolitan cities to small communities like Presho, S.D., where high school kids are overdosing; and in Kimball, S.D., where kids are using meth and heroin.
“It’s everywhere and it’s everybody,” she said. “Emily breaks all the stereotypes for people, which is why I think her story has gotten so much national attention. This should never have happened to a person like Emily, who came from a position of privilege.”
On the day of her daughter’s death, Kennecke, an investigative reporter for KELO-TV in Sioux Falls, S.D., was working on a story about overdoses. She has continued those efforts, dedicating an hour-long KELO special to the opioid crisis last December.
“I get emails every single day. I hear from parents all over the country who have lost children - doctors, judges, people in every walk of life who have children that are addicted or have lost children,” Kennecke said. “I’m not a counselor, I’m a journalist, but I do the best I can to refer people to the right sources for help.”
In addition to sharing Emily’s story, Kennecke will talk about Emily’s Hope, the non-profit she established to help people get treatment for drug addiction. Donations are used to help offset the cost of treatment for people who need it, as insurance companies often don’t pay for treatment.
Kennecke, who is the South Dakota co-chair on the national Addiction Policy Forum, said one of the goals their group has is to change the language used to describe drug addiction. Instead of calling it addiction, it wants to instead call it substance abuse disorder.
As that discussion continues, Kennecke will continue to share her family’s story.
“It’s a way for me to channel my grief and it’s also a way for me to help people - to make sure my daughter’s death isn’t meaningless,” she said. “If just one or two people go into treatment because they’ve heard my story or they make sure a loved one gets help, then my daughter’s death will have meaning and significance because she shouldn’t have died. She was poisoned by fentanyl. I consider it a drug-induced homicide.”
Kennecke said her faith was shattered when she lost Emily, and the support of others is helping her to renew her faith.
Kennecke will speak at 7 p.m. May 8 at the Living Your Best Life event at the American Reformed Church, Worthington. Tickets for the event may be purchased in advance by calling 376-6105 or ordering them online through District 518 Community Education. Tickets will also be sold at the door.
Emily’s artwork will be on display April 20 through June 2 in the Everest Gallery at the Washington Pavillion in Sioux Falls. An educational display about drug overdose will be incorporated into the exhibit.