How to Support Loved Ones Who Are Grieving an Addiction Loss

By
Dr. Louise Stanger
Holding-Hands

In 2016 alone, the number of American lives lost to drug overdoses exceeded the American death toll of the entire Vietnam war. The loss of life also exceeded that of the HIV/AIDS epidemic at its height. And it’s getting worse: In 2017, drug overdose deaths increased by 9.6%.

The evidence is staggering. We are in the midst of a worldwide alcohol and opioid epidemic that leaves too many families and friends dealing with traumatic aftermath.

Each person who dies tragically from an alcohol or drug related death leaves at least four people dealing with that loss. There are wives, husbands, sisters, daughters, employers and more who are left to pick up the pieces as they struggle with how to cope with this type of death.

My own personal experience has brought me five sudden deaths, and I know firsthand how excruciating and debilitating this type of loss can be. While death in and of itself is devastating, alcohol and drug related deaths compound the experience for many of us. The grief experienced by family, friends and loved ones is conflicted and often complicates the healing process.

Common responses to grief

While everyone grieves differently, families surviving an overdose or alcohol related death are more likely to experience intense feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy. Parents often feel intensely acute pain as we all believe parents are supposed to precede children in death. They are also left to confront old stigmas attached to addiction, where society all but says a person doesn’t have the right to grieve due to the nature of the death. This causes acute isolation and a drive to overly self-regulate the normal emotions processed while grieving.

How to help the bereaved

I know that friends and co-workers can struggle with finding the right words or actions, but sometimes it’s the simplest tactics that mean the most. Here are some tips for how to support friends, family, and loved ones grieving an addiction loss.

  • Be present. Understand it is a traumatic event & express sympathy, even if the news has been delivered dispassionately by law enforcement or a local authority. Hold space for those who are now facing the decisions and aftermath of hearing this news. Be available or respond promptly, especially in the initial few weeks.
  • Listen. Understand we all grieve differently. Facing the reality of someone’s death and the choice to honor them will look different to people. A myriad of emotions may arrive throughout the days, weeks, months and even years to come. Staying neutral and listening will do far more than bashing the person who died or commenting on the bereaved person’s emotions.
  • Encourage support. Trying to tackle phone calls, email and visitors may initially prove too much for someone who is grieving. Instead, we can encourage the bereaved to go slowly, and take their time, and to allow help from others who can help with necessities. Self-care is easily dropped during this difficult time, but is essential to healing.
  • Learn about addiction. Too many people still don’t understand the true nature of addiction, and the fact that it’s a scientific illness, not a choice or a character flaw. It can be helpful to find others who have been through similar experiences. While not all support groups will be the right fit, many are a lifeline for some people, and may lead to increased understanding and education. The shame associated with addictive illness needs to be removed; no one chooses it.
  • Be available . It is not just in the immediacy of death that your help is needed. It is also in the weeks and months ahead. Grief comes in many forms, and it’s incredibly helpful for bereaved people to have a friend who listens, runs an errand or two, and is there to help with all the many tasks, from giving clothes away to helping with childcare or a family meal or just going for a walk your presence.

Resources for families

The following is a list of resources you may find helpful:

My hope is that anyone dealing with grief recovery can find tools, people and support necessary to get through the experience. Finding coping strategies and people who care for you is essential, as is handling yourself with patience and compassion.

Dr. Louise Stanger is a professional interventionist. As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW, BBS #4581) for over 35 years, she specializes in substance misuse, process addictions, mental health disorders, sudden death, trauma, grief and loss. She founded All About Interventions to help families move from fear to hope. Dr. Stanger is also a speaker, educator, trainer, and co-author of The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions: A Collective Strategy. To learn more visit https://www.allaboutinterventions.com.

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