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Published on October 01, 2020

Angela Kennecke and her daughter Emily

Living After Loss

Beginning with that dreaded news on May 16, 2018, Angela Kennecke became a member of a club that no one wants to belong to – that of parents who have lost a child.

Her beautiful and talented 21-year-old daughter, Emily, died of fentanyl poisoning in a drug overdose.

“She hid it from us,” Kennecke said of her daughter’s addiction, although she and other family members had seen the signs. They were in the midst of planning an intervention to ask her to seek treatment at the time of her death.

“When the worst possible thing happens, the only choice you have is how you respond,” Kennecke said. She took a leave of absence from her work as a news anchor and investigative reporter with KELO. “I used that time to get counseling and take care of my family and other kids,” she said. She also spent hours collecting Emily’s artwork and having it professionally photographed to be placed online and at exhibits.

Using Loss to Raise Awareness

Although the fresh wounds are healing, the scars won’t ever disappear – nor will the deep ache inside that comes to the surface from time to time.

“We all have burdens, losses and challenges. Many people choose to let those things define them. I kept saying to myself, ‘don’t let me die while I’m still alive.’”

Kennecke wanted to use her grief as a catalyst to raise awareness, stop the stigma and get people treatment who are suffering from substance use disorder. She went public with her story, creating a TV special on the opioid crisis, and telling Emily’s story through numerous public speaking engagements.

Emily Groth by one of her pieces of artEmily Groth

She established Emily’s Hope, and this fund at the Avera Health Foundation will help offset the cost of treatment and allow more people struggling with addiction to get the help they need. “I have heard of numerous people who have sought help after hearing Emily’s story. If even one person is saved, I will know I have done the right thing to channel my grief.”

Emily’s Hope pledged $250,000 to the Emily’s Hope Fund at Avera. Since December 2019, Emily's Hope Treatment Scholarships have helped 32 people go through the Avera Addiction Care Center. Emily’s Hope has also supported a sober living home named The Emily's Hope House for women in recovery with children. This effort has helped 30 women and at least a dozen children.

Gratitude is an Antidote

Kennecke has heard enough stories of parents from all walks of life – pastors, educators and doctors – to realize that addiction is a disease that can impact anyone. When it comes to teens and especially young adults, parents can’t control their children’s decisions.

“People thank me – parents of addicts thank me. That makes me feel like I can keep putting one foot in front of the other and help make a difference.”

There are no shortcuts through the grieving process. “You have to experience those emotions and go through it before you can begin healing,” Kennecke said.

Yet, Kennecke found gratitude to be an antidote to grief. “I stop and think of something – right now – that I’m grateful for. Even if it’s for a great cup of coffee that I’m holding or that I’m breathing.” She also finds it therapeutic to write about her experiences in a blog, and to live in the moment.

People kindly say to Kennecke, “You look so great.” She appreciates the compliments, but says, “The scars are on the inside, and they will always be there.”

How to help a grieving parent:

  • Ask “how are you doing.” This allows the parent to talk about the loss if they want to, or choose not to talk about it.
  • Don’t fear that talking about the loss will cause added pain. It’s always on their mind.
  • Simply say “I’m so sorry” and convey an attitude of concern, sympathy and caring.
  • Just listen.
  • Remember the child in meaningful ways. Kennecke established an arts scholarship through the Sioux Falls Community Foundation to honor Emily’s love of art, in addition to the Emily’s Hope fund.

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