Accidents happen, whether they’re car accidents, friendly fire, drug overdoses. Accidents happen, and they’re tragic. It’s like a bomb that goes off and pieces of shrapnel rip into the flesh of the family. It’s the families that need the compassion, because everywhere they walk, every day, someone reminds them of their loss. James Belushi
The death of a close friend or family member from an overdose is often shocking and always painful. But unlike other more “socially acceptable” deaths (e.g., illness, accidents, cancer, etc.), an overdose death often brings guilt, shame, judgment, isolation, ostracization, blame. As Denise Cullen told Kristin Gourlay of NPR after her son Jeff died of an overdose, “no one brings casseroles when a child dies a stigmatized death. People keep their distance because they don’t know what to say.”
Nowadays, overdoses and death can happen the first time someone uses a drug, leaving friends and family members shocked and stunned. In other cases, people die when taking a drug after a long period of abstinence. There’s hope that they’ve beaten their addiction and become their old/former selves. The light has returned to their eyes and life is once again full of possibilities and hope. And then, in an instant, they’re gone.
They may be gone, but what never has to leave is your memory of them for who they really were. The fact that they used drugs doesn’t invalidate all the good in them and their lives. Buster Ross
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug overdose deaths rose from 16,849 in 1999 to 70,237 in 2017. Deaths from heroin overdose increased by almost eight times during the same period. People are more likely to die of an opioid overdose than a car accident. And yet, because of the stigma, the grief is often complicated and support can be hard to find. Surviving friends and families are left with so many unanswered questions …
- What more could I have done?
- Did I do too much?
- Could I have prevented my loved one’s death?
- How did this happen?
- What if I had …?
- Why didn’t I just …?
Please do not treat his death as if it was marginal. It was not. It was a life, and he had an light that went out. My heart hurts when something is said without thinking of the impact it has on everyone who is grieving him. Margaret M. Linnehan
How can you help someone who’s lost a loved one to addiction?
- Offer to talk about the person who has died. Say his name. Make it clear you understand that the addiction and death were only a small part of who he was.
- Show up. Attend the memorial service. Send a card. Drop off a meal. Share stories and memories of the person who’s died. There is no greater gift you can give a grieving family.
- Avoid judging your friend or family member. She may well already be feeling guilty, ashamed, judged, blamed. Don’t add to her pain.
A few of our favorite resources on losing a loved one to a drug overdose:
- “Seven Ways Grief Is Compounded By An Overdose Death” — how the death of Jessica Fowler’s father by overdose complicated her grieving process
- “The Grief Of An Overdose Death — And How You Can Support Someone Grieving A Substance Use Loss” — useful suggestions on how to help a friend or family member grieving the death of someone dear to them
- “The Opioid and Fentanyl Crisis Killed My Brother: Here’s What Every Family Needs To Know”
- “No Family Is Safe From This Epidemic” — James Winnefeld, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shares the story of his son Jonathan’s addiction and death from a fentanyl-laden batch of heroin
- Grieving A Death From Addiction — comforting and practical article by Denise Angela Cullen, a certified grief recovery specialist and the executive director of Grief Recover After A Substance Passing (GRASP)
- The Ecstasy And The Agony — a poem about the death of the poet’s son from a heroin overdose
- Daddy’s Memory — a poem for the poet’s father who is no longer a part of her life or her younger brother’s due to drugs and violence
- When A Loved One Dies Of Overdose, What Happens To The Family? — short piece on NPR’s All Things Considered
- Grieving After An Overdose Death: The First Days (Part 1) — parents who’ve lost a child to a drug overdose share how they survived the early days after their loss
- Grief And Recovery After An Overdose Death (Part 2) — more perspective and wisdom from parents who’ve lost a child to a drug overdose
- Eluna Network — supports children and families affected by addiction and grief. Molly Hasson, the Resource Center Director, will provide a personalized set of resources plus a warm handoff to referrals and other support
- Grief Recovery After A Substance Passing (GRASP) — visit the GRASP website to find resources, a local chapter and a community of support
- Grief Support After An Overdose: Helping Families Heal — a comprehensive list of resources to help those who are grieving after an overdose death
- Coping With The Stigma of Grieving An Overdose Death
- Substance Abuse And Overdose … When A Loved One Dies — resources, advice and perspective from the Hospice of the Western Reserve