Complex Grief Associated with Death by Addiction
I know this is a heavy title, but I want to spend this article talking about the very real and unfortunately, very common type of grief. In my line of work, in hospitals working with families whose loved one is at the end of life, death by overdose or addiction happens every day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 1,177 overdose deaths in Wisconsin in 2017; that’s over 3 deaths every day. These deaths are from synthetic opioids, heroin and prescription opioids like pain pills. Grief associated with death by overdose is unique, given the complexity of the grief and the seemingly inconsistent emotions families hold all at once. There is added complexity to this grief when people feel the death was somehow preventable. I want to take some time and walk through the variety of emotions people may feel when they are grieving death by overdose.
Guilt is the feeling of having committed an offense or failed in an obligation. Guilt can arise for folks grieving death by overdose when they feel they could have or should have done something to prevent the death. For example, family members might say “Should I have given him gas money when I knew he would spend it on drugs? Did I somehow cause his death?” Or “I showed her tough love by kicking her out; if I had let her say, I could have helped her when she overdosed.” If you are talking with someone struggling with this, reassure the one grieving that the death is not their fault.
Relief is the feeling of reassurance or relaxation following release form anxiety or distress. It is natural to feel a sense of relief when pain or suffering ends. Think about it for yourself – the sense of relief you feel when that headache goes away, or when exams or the big presentation for work is over. No one who has an addict in their family wants their loved one to die. They have always hoped for the addiction to end, praying it would be through recovery, not in death. But, in the face of death by overdose, the addict’s and the family’s suffering has ended. A mother won’t have to worry any longer when the phone rings late at night. A spouse won’t have to worry about shielding the children from the addict’s behaviors. This feeling of relief in no way diminishes the love for the addict or the sense of loss and grief.
Shame is the feeling of bringing disgrace or regret, and it is an emotion that is based on what others think of you. Shame around death by overdose comes with the thought that you believe others think it is your fault for having a family member who is an addict. The feeling of shame can also arise if there is a perception that you enabled the addict. Those grieving may think others will judge them for not doing enough to help the addict get clean and sober. Because of this shame, family members may be reluctant to share the circumstances of the death or feel less worthy of mourning. Addiction likely touches every family in some form; don’t let the one grieving feel shame. Reassure the surviving family that you love them, support them and that you can only imagine how hard this death and grief must be.
Fear is to be afraid of someone or something as likely to be dangerous, painful or threatening. Those grieving death by overdose will likely have a sense of fear and anxiety in the wake of the death. They may wonder “Will others start using, relapse or die of an overdose?” Surviving family members may find themselves trying to control every situation as to not allow anyone else to die or be hurt. You can imagine how fixated someone could get trying to protect others and not address their own grief.
Stigma and Isolation Stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. There may be a reluctance for those grieving to openly discuss the cause of death due to stigma around drug abuse and addiction. Surviving family members may be hesitant to share out of fear of what others may think, or they may want people to remember the deceased as happy, loving, athletic, smart… not as an addict. Unfortunately, this often leads to isolation, as those grieving don’t fully disclose the cause of death, don’t open up about the variety of grief they are feeling, and often limit their grieving.
If you find yourself in a situation where someone opens up about their grief surrounding death by overdose, please recognize it as a sacred moment. Remember the Not Top 10 and the Top 10… they apply for this type of grief too. If the person grieving begins to share the variety of emotions they are feeling, reassure them that one emotion does not detract from the others. You can be sad about the death and, at the same time, feel relief that the pain and stress associated with addiction has ended. You can feel relief and, at the same time, wonder if there were things you could have done to prevent the death. Emotions around death by overdose aren’t mutually exclusive.
On a totally different note… I would like to ask for prayers as I prepare for a mission trip in June. I will be joining Ardmore Baptist Church and my husband, Rev. Dane Martin on a week-long mission trip serving a community of Haitian refugees in the Bahamas. Haiti holds a special place in my heart, as that is where I first heard (or first listened to) God’s calling on my life. I am excited to minister to the Haitian people in this new context. Thank you for your prayers.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Overview of the Drug Overdose Epidemic, www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data
 What’s Your Grief; The Grief of an Overdose Death: Part 1, https://whatsyourgrief.com/the-grief-of-an-overdose-death