Kennecke shares tragic story that led to Emily’s Hope

By: 
Jill Meier, Journal editor
Angela Kennecke delivered a powerful story to the 1,000-plus Brandon Valley High School student body last week on her daughter, Emily’s, drug overdose and the aftermath. Jill Meier/BV Journal
When Angela Kennecke took the microphone before the 1,000-plus student body at Brandon Valley High School last week, you could almost hear a pin drop.
You see, Kennecke, a familiar face as an investigative reporter and broadcast journalist for KELO-TV for three decades, was telling her family’s personal story of heartache, a story that resonated with some of the teens, a story some may know all too well, and a story, others simply wanted to know more about. 
“Every time I talk to groups like yours, somebody is touched, maybe one life is changed, or the course of one life,” Kennecke said as she closed her near hour-long presentation. But Kennecke told the students she wasn’t there that day to talk to them in her professional status, but simply as a mom.
Kennecke’s heartache stems from the May 16, 2018 death of her 21-year-old daughter, Emily, the result of an overdose.
Over the next 45 minutes or so, Kennecke poured her heart out to the kids. She shared facts, such as the nationwide death toll, noting a record 72,000 people who died of drug overdoses in 2017.
“More people are dying from drug overdoses than HIV, car crashes or guns,” she shared. “Strong synthetic opioids like fentanyl are often mixed into the black-market supplies of heroin, cocaine, meth and anxiety medications. Dealers use fentanyl because it’s cheap and it’s easy to get through the mail.”
To date, she added that out of the 13 deaths in the Sioux Falls area this year, most have involved fentanyl.
“I don’t want this to happen in any of your families. But it keeps happening every day, it keeps happening,” she said.
Kennecke said life was difficult for her following Emily’s death. Her words were soft spoken. Her emotions were real and raw. 
“Basically, you just had to pick me up off the floor, and I don’t want any other mom or dad to ever experience that,” she said.
Kennecke told the kids that she knew she would have to return to work. After all, she would have three kids in college the next year and health insurance was a must. So, she called her boss and said, ‘I’m going to come back to work … and I want to tell Emily’s story’ through a special on the opioid crisis.
Without hesitation, they gave Kennecke their blessing and full support.
“I believe that whenever you shine light onto the darkness, you dispel fear and stigma and shame. And that’s what I’m trying to do because we’re all at risk. All of us have addiction, somewhere in our families or friends and people that we know are all at risk of being addicted or losing somebody that we love and care about.”
 
Emily was an amazing kid
Like most mothers, Kennecke was proud of her daughter and her many talents.
“First of all, she was intellectually gifted. She was artistically gifted, she was athletically gifted and I used to always tell her with so many gifts come great responsibility to bring those gifts to the world,” Kennecke said.
Emily’s introduction to drugs came at age 15. She was a gifted artist and involved in athletics as a gymnast, a cheerleader and ran the hurdles in track at O’Gorman high School. 
“She was just your typical high school kid and she had some really good friends since the sixth grade, but something started to change at about the age of 15,” Kennecke recalls. “She was my first kid and so I wasn’t really prepared as a parent. ... She started rebelling – a lot. She started sneaking out – a lot – and doing things she wasn’t supposed to do, and I started to get worried.”
Kennecke’s worry escalated when Emily became involved with one person – a boyfriend. She had dumped all of her other friends and as for the boyfriend, he eventually was expelled from school for dealing drugs. He now has a record and is currently facing more charges.”
Emily’s introduction to drugs started with marijuana, a drug that has become “socially acceptable,” Kennecke said.
“I know lots of young kids smoke it,” she said. “People ask me all the time, ‘What’s your opinion on the legalization of marijuana?’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t have an opinion. But my opinion is, it’s not for the developing brain, just like nicotine and alcohol.”
Kennecke reacted as any parent should. She tried to stop her daughter from going down that path.
“I had done just about everything I could think of as a parent and nothing worked,” she shared.
Next, Emily began using pills in the “benzo” class, like Xanax, even receiving a prescription for chronic pain from a psychiatrist.
“People often ask me if mental illness and addiction go hand in hand. A lot of times people are trying to self-medicate. They’re suffering from depression. They’re suffering from anxiety, so they use the drugs. But I think use can cause mental illness or anxiety, so I think it’s kind of the chicken and the egg type thing,” she said.
But what Kennecke didn’t know is that her daughter’s drug use had escalated to heroin.
“So many people will hide that kind of thing, especially from their parents because they don’t want to disappoint them,” she said. 
Kennecke saw her daughter go from being an “all-American image of beauty” to the look of an unhealthy person.
“She started losing weight, her eyes were sunken in, and she always said it with her younger sister and brothers, ‘I’ll be there. I’ll be at the concert. I’ll be at the game.’ But she started missing family events with no real good excuses, and that felt really hurtful to all of us. I didn’t understand the kind of addiction that she was facing as a cycle of getting high, getting sick, getting high, getting sick,” she told.
Family events for those who are addicted are hard, Kennecke said, because the addict doesn’t know when they’re going to get sick. Emily had lost her job and was picking at her face, and as a journalist who’d done many reports on the issue, she had her suspicions. She of course, questioned Emily, who denied using drugs.
Kennecke opted to forgo being the “bad cop” while Emily was in high school.
“I thought if I could just turn her around ….” she said, likening it to a train wreck.
“I was standing in front of this freight train and it just plowed me over when she died. Try stopping a freight train. I didn’t stop it. As time went by, I really tried to approach her from a standpoint of love. How would I want to be talked to if I was using something and I couldn’t stop? How do I always approach it from the standpoint of love? I did that because I think there’s so much shame associated with drug use. It’s like a trap, you’re caught, you can’t quit. Sometimes you don’t want to quit.”
At 21 years of age, Emily had a whole life before her, and Kennecke and family had made the decision to set up an intervention.
“Everything in my instincts told me something is seriously wrong here,” she remembers. “We would see Emily and the more time I spent around her before her death, the more alarm bells went off in my head, so we hired an interventionist to help us get her into treatment.”
That meeting was on a Saturday and the intervention was set up for the following Saturday.
Emily died that Wednesday.
“We didn’t get that chance. We didn’t get a chance to get her into real treatment to get her real help. And then when I found out what she had been doing – the cause – it was unbelievable to me. The fact that my daughter would be using heroin and needles, my beautiful daughter, who was very privileged, had every opportunity in life to have a great life, went down this road. It was shocking to me. I consider myself a wordsmith. I write for a living every day, but there are no words to describe the devastation I feel at the loss of my daughter ... and as a mom, I have a hole in my heart that will always be there. It is never going to heal. I have other children whom I love and family whom I love, but nobody and nothing can replace the loss of my oldest child. And she was only 21,” Kennecke said.
From autopsy reports, Emily had six times what would be considered a therapeutic dose of fentanyl for the largest man and she was just a small, young woman. 
“She didn’t stand a chance. That fentanyl killed her almost instantly after she injected it,” she said. “I was robbed of my daughter, and no matter what happens to them or who’s charged or if anybody is charged directly with her death, while they say they know where she got it from, nothing will ever bring her back.”
Although Emily engaged in risky behavior, Kennecke said her daughter didn’t deserve to die, which led her to establish a fund called, “Emily’s Hope.”
“I never gave up hope on my daughter. I want her life and her tragic death to at least give someone else hope by telling Emily’s story and my story of loss, pain and suffering. … If just one person hears me, ... does one thing to save a life, then I don’t care about a million naysayers or a million people who don’t understand. I just care about that one mother I can stop from experiencing the pain that I have,” she said.
Four-hundred people are dying in this country every single day from addiction of alcohol, heroin, meth, opioids and stimulants, Kennecke informed.
“If a plane is crashing every single day, what would we be doing about that?” she asks. “I arguably say we’d be doing a lot more. We’d be grounding every flight out there, maybe getting to the bottom of the problem, solving it. But because of the stigma chain surrounding addiction, there’s such the idea that this is a choice.”
Kennecke told the students that fentanyl is a synthetic opioid made in factories.
“It’s very powerful and it’s very cheap and drug dealers are only after the money,” she said. “They don’t care about the people who are buying their product.”
 
The last ‘I love you’
The last time Kennecke and her family saw Emily was Mother’s Day 2018. She had given her mother a beautiful pot of yellow pansies and a card that said, “Thank you for always having my back and for how much you truly care about me. I love you so much and really appreciate how much you love you give me every year. On top of that, you’re gorgeous.”
“Our last words to each other were, ‘I love you.’”
Emily joined her family for brunch that day, but Kennecke remembers how anxious she was to leave.
“It kind of hurt my feelings, but now I understand,” she said. “She was probably worried about getting sick or when she needed to use again.” 
Kennecke’s last text to her daughter also included words of support and love.
“Like I told you, I was trying to approach it from a standpoint of love and not blame or shame or anger. I said, ‘I love you. You can always count on me.’”
 
The day Emily died
The day Emily died was a beautiful day in South Dakota. There was no wind and the trees were in full bloom.
“I went to work that day and I was working on a story on Good Samaritan laws and opioid overdoses. Now, isn’t that ironic?” Kennecke shares. “I didn’t think my daughter was using opioids. I thought she was using Xanax and marijuana. We were working to get her help. I was speaking to parents that very same day, whose kids had died of overdose and when I got off work, I texted her because we used to love to go hiking out at Good Earth with her dog. I said, ‘Want to go hiking?’, because it was a perfect evening. I didnt hear back from her, which was kind of unusual because she knew that I worried about her and she always texted me back almost right away. Then I tried calling and she didn’t answer. I thought, OK, back off mom. Dont be a pest or nag, she’s probably busy. I went home and I had dinner with my family. I decided if I wasn’t going out hiking, I would get flowers for my pots out front. I went to Costco, a perfectly ordinary Wednesday night thing to do, and I bought flowers. I was loading them in my car when I got a phone call and it was from her dad, and he used a voice I have never, ever heard before. He said, ‘I think Emily’s OD’d. I think she’s dead.’ I couldn’t even register those words. I got in my car and I started driving away from where he apartment was. I don’t even know how I got turned around. I have no memory of how I got there, but when I arrived at the apartment building, it looked like the scene of so many other stories I have covered in my career. Police out front, fire trucks, ambulance, looky-loos just standing around. But this wasn’t a story I was covering on somebody else. This was my kid.”
She entered a corner door that was propped open to the apartment building, ran up three flights of stairs to find people in the hallway and a police officer who was not going to allow her to go inside Emily’s apartment.” And I said, ‘Don’t know who I am?’ which I swear I’ve never, ever said in my entire 30 years of working, but I was desperate.”
As the officer was distracted, Kennecke gained access to the apartment and immediately saw the look on her husband’s face: “Unbelievable,” she said. “There were firemen and EMTs and police officers everywhere. I’m standing in the doorway … and I look and she’s hooked up to a machine and there is people all around her. I said, ‘Are there any vitals?’ and they said, ‘We’re breathing for her.’ I knew what that meant. There weren’t any vitals. At that point, I fell to my knees and I prayed like I have never prayed in my life. And I didn’t care that there were police officers and firefighters and everybody around there just staring at me. I didn’t care. I just needed my kid to live.”
Kennecke’s prayers were not answered that day. Thirty minutes later, they were told there was nothing more they could do.
“So, what do I do about that? That’s a lot, right?” she asks. “The only thing I can do is tell you I will never move on from the death of my daughter. I will never be the same person. And this is not how my or her story was supposed to end.”

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