“This most traumatic of tragedies have happened, possibly preceded by weeks, months, or even years of emotional heart-breaking turmoil when you have searched, loved, and tried to understand and help your special person…In the far recesses of your mind, there may have lurked the thought that, yes, a call COULD come one day to say that your troubled child had died.” ~Pat Wittberger, When a Child Dies from Drugs: Practical Help for Parents in Bereavement According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2014 was the year where drug overdoses were the largest cause of accidental deaths in America – resulting in more than 47,000 lost lives. This is the first time this has happened. But what this means is that there are many, many more people who are dealing with those 47,000 deaths. Spouses, partners, parents, siblings, children, other close family members, dear friends – all mourning the loss of an addicted loved one. Every 14 minutes, someone is mourning the loss of a loved one due to overdose. Perhaps you are one of them.
What You Need to Know If You Lost a Loved One to a Fatal Overdose
If you are, mere words of condolence are probably of little comfort to you. You may be wracked with feelings of guilt or shame – feeling that somehow you are to blame because you feel that you should have somehow been able to help your lost love one before it was too late. The most important thing for you to know is this – it was not your fault. YOU didn’t cause it. YOU couldn’t control it. YOU couldn’t cure it. Blaming yourself for the ravages of an incurable disease is not the best way to move forward with your life OR to honor the life of your departed loved one. The second-most important thing for you to know is this – healing is possible.
First Things First – Acknowledge Your Own Feelings
You are probably feeling a lot of negative emotions right now – and the nature of some of those feelings may surprise you and make you uncomfortable, but each one is a natural reaction to everything that you have experienced – not just to the recent death of your loved one, but to the entire experience with the disease of addiction.
- Guilt– overdose deaths produce many types of guilt:
- You may wonder if you could have – or even should have – done something differently.
- You may feel that their addiction was somehow YOUR fault.
- You may obsess about every little thing that you did or didn’t do.
- You may even feel guilty because you find yourself experiencing a sense of relief, because, for years, your family was negatively impacted by an ongoing addiction.
- Blame – you want to hold someone accountable for your loss:
- You want to blame the person who sold your loved one the drugs and everyone who ever used drugs with them.
- You want to blame other family members and friends for not doing more.
- You want to blame yourself for the same reason.
- You even want to blame the person who died for not being strong enough to beat their addiction.
- Fear – now that the worst has happened, you’re afraid that it can happen again:
- You’re afraid that other family members will also develop addictions.
- If other family members are already doing drugs, you’re afraid that you will lose them to overdose, too.
- If any family members are currently in rehab, you’re afraid that they will relapse and go back to doing drugs.
- Isolation – you feel as if no one can possibly understand what you are going through.
- Kind words from well-wishers bring you no comfort at all.
- You feel stigmatized, so you are reluctant to talk about your loved one’s death.
- Even your spouse can comfort you – in a 2011 study, half of the parents who lost a child to overdose or suicide felt that they weren’t getting the support they needed from their significant other.
Once again, each of these feelings is natural reactions to the shock of the loss of a loved one to an overdose. Understand that your feelings are neither good nor bad – they simply exist. You don’t have to feel guilty for your feelings, and you don’t have to be controlled by them, either.
Reject Denial and Face Reality About the Overdose Death of Your Loved One
Sometimes, in the rush to assign blame for a loved one’s death, it can be all-too-easy to overlook the real circumstances. This denial can slow down the healing process. Acknowledging the role that drugs played in your loved one’s life – and their death – can help you process how you feel about what happened. Facing the reality of what happened can help you let go of some of the negative feelings of guilt, shame, blame, and isolation. You lose the guilt and shame because your loved one’s death was the fault of the drugs – not you. You lose the need to blame someone because a disease is no one’s fault. You lose much of your isolation because you can speak freely and truthfully about your departed loved one.
Join a Local Support Group for People Who Lost a Loved One to Overdose
Another way to ease your feeling of isolation is to engage in fellowship with others who have experienced something close to what you have gone through. You will find a safe place where you can freely express your feelings and frustrations, completely without fear of judgment. In fact, you will find understanding, because others in the group feel and have felt the same. In a support group such as GRASP – Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing – and other similar fellowship organizations, you will be able to draw strength from others whenever your own emotions threaten to overwhelm you.
If Necessary, Speak to a Mental Health Professional
There are professional grief counselors who can help you cope with your loss. Even someone who specializes in helping people deal with the aftermath of a suicide can offer you helpful suggestions and tips about how to deal with the loss of someone due to a drug overdose.
Educate Yourself about the Disease of Addiction
You may have lost your loved one to an overdose, but that does not mean that you cannot continue to try to learn and understand what they were going through. The more you understand about the disease of addiction, the more of your emotional burden you will be able to lay aside – especially the blame and the shame that you are carrying around. Again, 12-Step support meetings such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon, as well as therapy sessions offered through local outpatient drug rehab programs can be excellent resources where you can educate yourself about substance abuse disorders.
Find Ways to Honor Your Loved One
There are several ways to celebrate the life of the loved one that you lost to overdose, and these can be excellent ways to find something positive in the midst of a personal tragedy
- Observe International Overdose Awareness Day– held every August 31. You can do something simple, like post a tribute on their website, or you can do something more ambitious, such as volunteer your time at a shelter.
- Find your voice and speak out against drug addiction – write a blog, speak at a school or an addiction recovery group, or just wear a pin on August 31 and tell your story to anyone who asks about it. Every time your words convince someone to get help – you have saved a life. There is no better way to honor the life of the person you lost.
Remember the Person You Love – Not Just the Disease That You Hate
One of the best ways to overcome your grief is to remember the PERSON that you lost – the special things that made them unique. Recall the good times and the joy that you experienced together. Celebrate their life. Why is this so important? If the only thing you focus on is their illness, soon, that is the only way you will define them – and they were so much more than just their disease. Losing someone to addiction is unimaginable. Timely intervention and effective drug treatment give your loved one their best chance at sustained recovery and long-lasting sobriety. If someone you care about is struggling with an addiction, contact Northpoint Recovery in Boise, Idaho, right away. Northpoint provides comprehensive inpatient addiction rehab services to residents throughout the Pacific Northwest states – not only Idaho, but also Wyoming, Washington State, Montana, Utah, and Oregon. By utilizing an evidence-based and total wellness-focused treatment strategy that combines empirically-sound protocols, 12-Step principles, and trusted holistic techniques, Northpoint Recovery addresses addiction on multiple levels, thereby maximizing the opportunity for a successful sober journey.