Grieving a Drug-Related Death

Recently, a mother entered my office seeking help for agonizing grief over the death of her adult child.  Cause of death was drug-related.  While I have provided bereavement support to many past clients, I soon grasped how marginalized her grief is and was struck by this client’s heavy aloneness.

Matthew 5:4  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  This scripture verse, simply stated, would seem easy enough to follow.  Not so, however, as I’ve come to realize.  While people may be sincere in their condolences, too often the effort falls painfully short.  Additionally, some types of death illicit little sympathy leaving the mourners brokenhearted and alone in their grief.  Such a death is by drug overdose.   

Did you know that in the United States drug-related deaths outnumber traffic fatalities? that someone dies from an overdose every 14 minutes? that overdose deaths surpass deaths due to some cancers?  According to the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 72,000 Americans died from an illicit drug or prescription opioid in 2017, a two-fold increase in a decade.  If you did not know this, it’s not a surprise as this type of death is often not considered worthy of much attention.  Or, perhaps you are aware of these numbers due to the recent media attention, but the discussion normally ends there. 

As progressively more families are touched by addiction, more people are left to deal with grief in isolation.  This grief is eclipsed by guilt, shame, and stigma.  Family members often experience contrasting emotions, complicating, concealing, and even evading their grief.  Additionally, much of our society deems the death fitting thus offers little to no support.  Sadly, to date, there is little research and very few self-help books specific to this grief.  According to one study by researchers Feigelman, Jordan, and Gorman (2011), compared to other death causes, these parents are a greatly neglected bereavement population. 

There are unique challenges for these mourners.  The neglect of this population can be explained primarily by the stigma associated with the lifestyle of the deceased.  The drug user’s behavior is often labeled as “immoral and/or criminal.”  The griever, sensing society’s disdain for the deceased (their dependency on drugs and whatever means used to feed their addiction), hides his/her sorrow and avoids socializing.  Avoidance does not heal but cements the bitter aches. 

Other challenges are blame, guilt, and shame.  Whether or not the survivors knew of the drug use, there is often the belief that they should have prevented the death.  Many more are burdened with further guilt believing that they were responsible for the addiction in the first place.  Mourners blame themselves or feel the blame of others.  According to research conducted by Feigelman et all (2011), blame comments made to parents grieving a drug overdose death were far greater in contrast to blame accusations made to parents grieving an accidental or natural death (97% to 3%).  This difference amplifies the challenge of those who grieve death by drug overdose.  These blame experiences and guilt beliefs add to their shame and lead to further isolation. 

If there was knowledge of an addiction prior to death, family and friends most likely endured an exhaustive period of fearing the loved one’s death.   After death, a range of emotions is experienced including ambivalence or even relief which invoke further shame and guilt.  When the griever risks reaching out to others, he/she may discover that others pass judgments or offer abbreviated support.  In either case, grievers experience dismissal.  This intensifies grief.     

As this type of death is regularly perceived as not worthy of grief, the bereaved become reluctant to talk at all.  Without opportunities to safely talk about their loved one’s death and the role drug use played in it, the griever begins to question the reality of cause of death.  This commonly prompts a further downward spiral.   Withdrawal from conversations, refusal to participate in support groups or counseling, and hesitancy to seek family support become frequent occurrences. 

Moreover, drug-related deaths regularly instill anxieties.  Family members may obsess that the other member might have a proclivity to abuse substances.  Fear leads to mistrust, and mistrust leads to attempts at control.  These behaviors alienate rather than unite family causing further strife in the grieving process.   

If you know someone who grieves the loss of a loved one due to drugs, please be gentle in your thoughts and actions.  Understand that grief is not a disease you might catch or that the cause of death should dictate our acts of kindness.  Please understand that the griever’s life has forever changed.  Do not feel obliged to offer statements suggesting the mourner “move on” or “feel relief.”  Instead, allow yourself to be available and present to the griever.   Recall the heart of our Savior, Jesus Christ, as you reflect on your attitude towards those that mourn. 

If you’re grieving a drug-related death, I offer you my heartfelt condolences and prayers.  I desire for you to be supported and feel embraced by the love of your family and friends.  May you find new friends that can more fully offer you support and new outlooks.  Lastly, I ask that you review the following list for ideas to better manage and cope with your grief. 

1)  Face the reality of the circumstances of the death.  While it is easier to deny the truth, in order to address any complicated feelings around the death and begin to heal, honesty is necessary.  Leaving a tribute to the person you lost may help.  Realize there are thousands of incredible people who died by overdose.  These people were loved, are remembered and are grieved.  Sharing who they were and how they died begins to change the stigma, blame, isolation and shame. 

2)  Express your emotions.  This can be accomplished verbally or through writing, art, music, photography, blogging, or otherwise.  Silence only perpetuates the vicious cycle of isolation and maintains the stigma.

3)  Understand addiction.  Gaining a deeper understanding of addiction can keep guilt in a manageable range. The mourner will learn that blame is misplaced.  Basically, education empowers.  The bereaved learn about and can begin to challenge the myths and misconceptions about addiction and overdose.

4)  Be discerning about your associates.  People may offer well-intentioned but unwelcome remarks.  To strengthen supportive relationships, challenge these unhelpful efforts among close associates.  If your request goes unheeded, continued contact with such friends and family may cause more harm than support.  In such cases, give yourself permission to take a break from that person with the goal to reunite at a later date.  Avoid people who are not helpful.  Instead, surround yourself with people who support you.  This is paramount. 

5)  Utilize your support system.  Experiencing the death of a loved one can be an emotional roller coaster.  Chances are that people who offer help sincerely want to give it.  Accepting help may feel awkward but can provide great relief.  To ease this awkwardness, consider mapping out a support system.  This entails the following:  a) be “open” to asking for and/or accepting help, b) identify your needs, then c) identify the best person for each need.  Then, be courageous and reach out. 

6)  Learn about specific resources.  As more people experience the impact of addiction and drug-related deaths, more resources are emerging.  Seek out support groups, forums, blogs, and articles specific to grieving an overdose death.  A few to consider are GRASP (Grief Recovery After Substance Passing), Broken No More, Mom’s Tell, and Al-Anon and Nar-Anon.  Also, consider talking with a counselor specializing in bereavement support and grief.

7)  Participate in International Overdose Awareness Day.  This is a global event held on August 31 each year.  It aims to raise awareness of overdose and reduce the stigma of drug-related deaths as well as to acknowledge the grief felt by the family and friends.  This can be a meaningful way to pay tribute to your loved one. 

REFERENCES

Feigelman, W., Jordan, J. R., & Gorman, B. S. (2011).  Parental Grief After a Child’s Drug Death Compared to Other Death Causes:  Investigating a Greatly Neglected Bereavement Population.  OMEGA, Vol. 63(4) 291-316. www3.ncc.edu/Faculty/SOC/feigelb/ODdeathspaper.pdf

National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2017).  National Center for Health Statistics:  Overview.  NCHS Fact Sheet, September 2017.  Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/index.htm