Some people struggle to understand and communicate their emotions surrounding death and grief. When a loved one dies, they dive into planning services, organizing households or closing finances. However, the silence can be deafening when it comes to the avoidance of conversations about drug-related deaths. Overdose deaths outnumber traffic fatalities in the US, which means that we most likely all know — and are maybe even close to — someone who lost their battle to drug addiction. In fact, with the opioid epidemic still tearing through our country, the number of deaths due to overdose in 2016 crept into the top ten leading causes of death in the US.
The truth is, we don’t like to acknowledge that addiction can touch anyone. We blame weakness, willpower, poor parenting or poor choices, making it hard to imagine the real faces behind those statistics — the real lives lost and the real people grieving.
Grief for an overdose death is still a social taboo. It’s cloaked in stigma, often resulting in survivors feeling guilt and shame about discussing their grief and loss. However, for those experiencing the bereavement of an overdose death, there are ways to cope. Here are a few reasons why drug-related deaths are so difficult to talk about, and how we can open the dialogue up with compassion and understanding.
Feeling Grief and Shame
Much like when you lose a loved one to suicide, overdose deaths elicit complex emotions where people may believe the death was somehow avoidable. You might even feel like you can’t talk to anyone about the way you feel without an overwhelming sense of grief and shame.
You may struggle to talk about your grief because you feel like you could have done more to save them from their addiction and prevent the loss. If there were times that the deceased loved one asked you for money and you turned them away — fully knowing they’d use the money on drugs — you may feel guilty that maybe that money could have extended their lives. Another source of guilt comes from the sense of relief you might feel after years of fighting to help this person make it through addiction.
When grieving an overdose death, on top of feeling a sense of responsibility, you might also feel shame. You might feel the need to compare the experience of your loved one’s death with people who have lost someone to cancer, accidents or heart disease — and feel unworthy. As a parent of a child who died from an overdose, you might sense that others see the death as your child’s fault or that they deserved it. You may even wonder if they will think you were a bad or neglectful parent for having a child who suffered from addiction.
Feeling Judgment or Blame
When a death feels preventable, guilt and shame can limit your comfort of opening up about your feelings. Not only can you feel like your loved one is being judged, but that you are as well. When you try to open up, you might feel others blaming the death on the person and not on the addiction. When surrounded by these negative emotions, you might even start to blame yourself or family members for not doing more to save the person’s life.
The truth is — and you’ll have to tell yourself this again and again — while guilt, shame and blame are natural emotions in the grieving process, they aren’t rooted in truth. They are grounded in the very stigma we’re trying to shatter.
Judgment and blame can drive individuals and families to stay hidden instead of opening up to create a safe, healing space for everyone who has been touched by addiction. Nearly 50% of parents who have lost a child to overdose reported hearing remarks about blaming the deceased, so this is a conversation we need to take to the mainstream.
Feeling Reluctant and Isolated
In 2017, America saw more than 70,000 drug-related deaths. Addiction disturbs thousands of lives each year, including family and friends, yet we still feel an overwhelming sense of isolation because of society’s reluctance to talk about how we feel when we lose someone we love to drugs and alcohol.
If you have difficulty accepting the cause of death — the way many struggle to acknowledge how serious the addiction became — you might feel reluctant to share your grief with others. That isn’t just about talking to friends and family, but also a reluctance to speak to a grief counselor, support groups or a mental health professional. When we feel isolated, opening up and reaching out becomes more difficult. We don’t feel like others understand, want to get involved or, more often than not, that we just aren’t deserving.
Even when people who try to comfort you mean well, overdose deaths can elicit some awkward interactions that many people would rather just avoid than deal with, which can drive a survivor deeper into isolation. You might start to feel anxious about, or even fear, social situations where you might have to open up or address the situation with people you’re not wholly comfortable with. That anxiety can turn family members against each other. The fear can make lifelong friends suddenly cold enemies. It doesn’t have to be this way. Even though grief may cause us to say and feel emotions that fade, we can learn to cope, to have compassion and respect for people experiencing this complex loss — including ourselves.
Ways to Cope
Addiction is a devastating disease. If you haven’t experienced it or been through it with family and friends, then it is difficult to understand. Death caused by addiction is even harder to understand. Many times, the shame, guilt, isolation and fear stem from misunderstandings about the illness. When you feel like a failure because you feel you failed to care for your child, parent, friend or loved one, it’s difficult to open up about the complicated grief that accompanies overdose deaths.
Here are a few ways to cope with the stigma:
Educating people on the reality of drug addiction and overdose is one way to help people gain a more knowledgeable perspective about the situation. When someone makes a callous or uninformed comment, explain to them the real truth. You can use statistics, anecdotes from other lives, or your own personal story.
Have compassion for yourself. When you want to open up but feel hesitant, remind yourself that you have every right to feel whatever you feel — relief, sadness, guilt — and that people can and will surprise you with their empathy and understanding.
Drug addiction has been more prevalent in the news. More and more people are beginning to understand that it’s not about weakness or willpower, but about something much deeper than a chemical dependency. The more we can talk about the realities of drug overdose, the more people will begin to have compassion and respect for your complicated grief.
Ultimately, we feel these negative emotions surrounding an overdose-related death because we have been convinced that we — and our loved ones — simply aren’t worthy of grief and mourning like other deaths. However, you are not alone, and your complex emotions are worthy of healing. Even the most reluctant of sharers can find comfort during their grief by connecting with those going through similar experiences. That’s truly the most profound way to heal from grief due to addiction — making human connections.