According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2019 there were an estimated 69,029 people who died from a drug overdose in the United States alone. This number of overdose deaths exceeds the nation’s peak annual deaths from car crashes, AIDS, or guns. This number reflects the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, children, coworkers, uncles, aunts, and friends lost to an unnecessary and preventable death. It would be fair to say that almost every American has been impacted by the disease of addiction, whether it has been a first-hand account or simply through an acquaintance.
Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease of the brain. Without receiving proper addiction treatment, untreated substance abuse disorder can be fatal. It is unfortunate and horrible when someone dies from an overdose, but when you lose a loved one to addiction, it can be absolutely devastating. If you survived your addicted loved one, you may feel pressured by grief, stigma, and blame that may halt a healthy grieving process. It is important you learn how to cope with the death of your addicted loved one in a healthy way and at your own pace.
What to do When Someone Dies From an Overdose
As an experienced dual diagnosis treatment center in Palm Beach, Florida, we have seen the fatal effects of untreated addiction every day. Our clinical staff has talked with patients and family members who have lost loved ones from this progressive disease. Many of our experienced staff members have been directly impacted by the loss of an addicted family member or friend. While each of our relationships to our addicted loved ones varies and changes over time, it is important to learn how to cope in healthy ways. Here are a few tips on how to cope with losing a loved one to addiction.
Allow Yourself to Grieve
Due to the varying stigmas and complex feelings associated with grieving the loss of an addicted loved one, many individuals repress how they feel. Addiction is a complex disorder that affects not only the addicted individual, but affects everyone in its wake. Whether you have experienced the seemingly unbreakable codependent dynamic or perhaps you were a victim of abuse from your addicted loved one, the unhealthy dynamics of these types of relationships can lead to denial of those emotions. Ultimately, this may cause you to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms which will prevent you from dealing with the trauma and experiencing overall healing.
An important aspect of allowing yourself to grieve requires you to view addiction as a disease. This can help you process your loved one’s death and help separate the addict from the disease. Acknowledging the disease of addiction does not minimize your experience or the traumatic loss of your loved one, but it can help relinquish any feelings of guilt, blame, and shame. Take the time to grieve – at your own pace – and give yourself to space to acknowledge that you are grieving for both the person you loved and the relationship you once had.
Seek Out Support
When an individual is grieving the loss of a loved one, it is important to seek out social support. It is always ideal to share memories and grieve with friends and family members. However, this is not always possible, nor is this the support you may need while you are recovering from grief. Here are some of the common barriers when recovering from the grief that you may face and how you can find support for these issues.
Coping with Stigma
Social pressures and stigma can result in the people around you failing to show support and/or compassion for your loss. You may encounter your peers saying hurtful things such as “He deserved it.” or “Be glad she isn’t suffering anymore.” This kind of stigma is common and generally stems from rampant ignorance surrounding substance use disorder. If you find that your friends and loved ones are uneducated about the disease of addiction, you should seek out support groups such as Al-Anon, SMART Recovery, or Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing (GRASP). These support groups are educated on substance use disorders and meet specifically to support family members/friends of addicts.
Healing From Trauma and PTSD
Many people suffer some trauma following the death of a loved one. However, this is especially true for individuals who have suffered the loss of an addicted loved one. Often times, relationships with individuals who are struggling with substance abuse are ridden with traumatic events and chaos. Not to mention, if you were present during the overdose you are likely to have experienced trauma. If you are experiencing crippling side-effects such as flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, or depression you may be struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can stem from the death of your loved one, their actions while addicted, and even the lack of social support after their death. If you feel that you may be struggling with PTSD, you need to seek professional help.
Guilt is a common and natural part of the grieving process. However, it is often significantly worse for individuals who experience losing a loved one as a result of a substance use disorder. You may begin to question if you could have done more for them. You might be telling yourself that you should have gotten them professional help from an addiction rehab. Your friends and family may even be telling you the same – ultimately validating your own guilt. No matter the circumstances, you are not responsible for the choices your loved one made. Your loved one may not have chosen to be addicted, but you didn’t choose that for him/her either. You must avoid blaming yourself for your addicted loved one’s choices or for their death.
Get Involved with Family Therapy
Living with a loved one who is struggling with substance abuse is a traumatic and difficult process. Losing your loved one to addiction is heart-wrenching. You have most likely suffered trauma and the grieving process takes time. Seeking out family therapy is an important and healthy way to begin coping with the loss of your addicted loved one. In family therapy, you will learn how to develop healthy coping mechanisms, reexamine your relationship with your lost loved one, and move past the unpleasant feelings associated with their addiction. Family therapy is especially beneficial for individuals who had a turbulent relationship with their loved one. Living with an addicted loved one shifts family dynamics, cultivates unhealthy behaviors, and can negatively impact your family as a whole.
Experiencing the death of a loved one is never an easy process, and addiction often contributes to the trauma associated with loss. It is common to feel guilty, conflicted, and ashamed of your addicted loved one’s behavior or your own. You may blame yourself for your loved one’s death and ultimately develop unhealthy coping skills to deal with these feelings. It is important that you understand that there is no cookie-cutter way to grieve. The grieving process looks different for everyone and as long as you make time to grieve, seek help, and relinquish yourself of blame – take the time you need to heal.