Anaya Rivers was just 25 when she died in her sleep last week of a drug overdose.

She left behind two young children along with numerous grieving family members, including a loving brother who took the unconventional step of disclosing her cause of death in the program booklet distributed at her funeral Thursday.

That’s not usually done. Typically, when family members die of an overdose, there’s a tendency not to disclose the exact cause of death. Even though mourners may have an inkling about what took Uncle Johnny, relatives often don’t spell it out — much less mention it in writing — because of the stigma associated with illicit drug use.

James Rivers, though, wanted it to be perfectly clear how his sister’s life came to such an untimely end.

“I understand why families of addicts don’t want to reveal the true cause of death in an obituary," he wrote in the glossy pamphlet given to mourners. “You see it all the time in the newspapers, obituary after obituary, week after week.”

Anaya Rivers' brother didn't want her death from an overdose to be in vain, so he disclosed her cause of death in her funeral booklet.
armstrj@phillynews.com
Anaya Rivers' brother didn't want her death from an overdose to be in vain, so he disclosed her cause of death in her funeral booklet.

“Everyone puts two and two together. Everyone knows it was an overdose. I know Anaya would want her story to help someone else. Opioids and addiction were her reality. I hope my sister’s passing brings hope and inspiration for recovery to the people who need it most.”

Beautiful words in the face of an ugly epidemic. Roughly 70,000 Americans die from drug overdoses each year, about 1,000 in Philly.

Rivers, an owner of two companies — Be Real Clothing and Real Vinyl Prints at 4629 Comly St. — found the wording that best expressed his sentiments online and added his own touches to personalize it for his sister’s home-going celebration at Shiloh Apostolic Temple on Master Street. On the page that carries his touching disclosure, there’s also a photo of his sister and him, smiling and hugging during happier times.

“Anaya was totally up-front with everyone about her addiction,” he wrote in the booklet, created by Carolyn Pendleton, of West Oak Lane. “It wasn’t something she hid from the world. Anaya struggled. I mean, she really struggled.”

I applaud Rivers for his honesty. More people need to speak out as he has. Too often, opioid abuse is considered a white problem, which is a fallacy. Although the current epidemic may have begun in rural America, it has infiltrated black urban neighborhoods like the one where Anaya lived.

“In the urban black community right now, Percocet is raving,” Rivers told me. "A lot of people, especially black people, they are taking these pills. Black people don’t really shine a light on it. When you think of an overdose, when you think of pills and all of that type stuff, you think of Caucasian people. Black people always try and hide it.”

Secrecy contributes to the stigma and shame surrounding addiction.

A page from a funeral obituary booklet of photos of Anaya Rivers from throughout the years. She died last week at the age of 25 from an overdose.
armstrj@phillynews.com
A page from a funeral obituary booklet of photos of Anaya Rivers from throughout the years. She died last week at the age of 25 from an overdose.

In Anaya’s case, her struggles began with Percocet, a prescription painkiller, and worsened over the years. According to her brother, the autopsy report revealed a lethal combination of fentanyl, cocaine, and morphine in her system.

“I did everything I could do. I tried to call rehab,” he told me. “I’m her brother. I’m a male. There were probably some things she probably didn’t feel comfortable talking about with me. We had a wonderful relationship, but she was not going to open up to me about everything.”

He opposes the opening of a supervised injection site in Philadelphia where addicts could use in medically supervised settings, because he fears that would make things too “comfortable.” Earlier this week, the U.S. attorney filed suit to block such an effort.

Rivers, who lost another loved one in August to drugs, will get push-back for making his sister’s cause of death public the way he has.

But if he can save even one life, it will be well worth it.

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