Comedian Rickey Smiley on 'Responsibility' to Share His Grief Over Son's Accidental Opioid Overdose (Exclusive)
Rickey Smiley’s 32-year-old son Brandon died of fentanyl and ethanol toxicity after battling a years-long addiction to painkillers
Comedian and radio personality Rickey Smiley has found a new purpose since losing his 32-year-old son Brandon to an accidental overdose in January. The host of radio's The Rickey Smiley Morning Show is speaking out about his grief and encouraging families to have conversations about addiction.
Brandon, an aspiring stand-up comic, died of fentanyl and ethanol toxicity, PEOPLE has learned. The manner of death was ruled as accidental, according to the autopsy report from the Jefferson County Medical Examiner's Office. Father to a 3-year-old daughter, Brandon battled an addiction to painkillers for years, according to Smiley.
Brandon is part of an alarming rise in opioid overdoses. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 80,411 people in the U.S. died from an opioid overdose in 2021 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), nearly four times the number of deaths from a decade prior.
"More young people are dying," says Smiley. "It's a terrible epidemic."
A devout Christian, Smiley also hopes to serve as an example to his reported 8 million listeners of someone who's relying on his relationship with God to move on from tragedy. "There's a lot of people that lost their kids," says Smiley, who has hosted his show for nearly two decades. "I felt like I had a responsibility to show people my faith and how I'm getting through."
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It's a two-way street, says Smiley's producer Tonya Clackum (aka Beyonce Alowishus on the show). "He's very compassionate, embracing other families who also lost children," she says of Smiley, who talks about his son on-air and takes calls from listeners who share their stories. "And he's been embraced too."
Smiley remembers Brandon, the oldest of his four children, as a funny and fun-loving prankster who doted on his half siblings, sisters D'essence, 25, and Aaryn, 21, and brother Malik, 21. Smiley and Brandon's mother split when their son was a baby, and Brandon came to live with his dad in eighth grade. "He was the big brother, the caretaker," says Smiley. "When he got his driver's license, he took them everywhere: movies, the amusement park."
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Though they bonded over boating and roller coasters, father and son began to butt heads once Smiley found hidden beer cans and weed. "It definitely changed our relationship," he says. After high school, Brandon enrolled at Alabama State University, then transferred to the University of Alabama — before he quit school altogether.
By this time, Smiley's once-cheerful son was also displaying mood swings. "I knew something was off," recalls Smiley, whose late father was also an addict.
Still, Smiley only saw evidence of marijuana and alcohol use, and while Brandon could get "testy and disrespectful," he didn't seem to be in major trouble. "No violence, no car crash," says Smiley. "He wasn't getting in trouble with the law, stuff like that."
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On the contrary, Brandon was "hard-working," according to his father. He held a job for a landscaping company and pursued a career in stand-up, hoping to follow his father into show business. (They both appeared on the unscripted TV One series Rickey Smiley for Real from 2015-18.)
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But over time Smiley began hearing from others — "I had my ear to the streets" — that Brandon had moved on to prescription drugs, even though his son would never own up to it. "He'd never get into the details of what he was using and who he was buying it from," says Smiley.
Not long after, Smiley's suspicions were confirmed and Brandon asked his dad to help him go to rehab. "It wasn't confrontational. It wasn't ugly; he wanted to go," says Smiley, recalling how it was the start of a difficult, years-long cycle. "He would get clean, and then he would relapse. It was just back and forth all the time."
The ups and downs took a toll on Smiley. "I just got overwhelmed, and I didn't want to resent him, so I had to create space," says Smiley, who hadn't spoken to Brandon much in the two years before his death.
Still, "he knew how much I loved him," he says. "I always told him. I always told him how proud I was of him. Everything that I could say to him, I did say to him."
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Though he has peace of mind in that sense, Smiley still struggles. "It's rough. There are a lot of sad moments," says Smiley, who recently resumed hosting comedy shows and has found a new — and comforting — connection with some of his fans.
"When I'm on the edge of the stage shaking hands [after the show], I already know which ones have lost their kids because they have a look in their eye," he says. "Before they even say it, I already know."
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, please contact the SAMHSA helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or go to samhsa.gov.
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