Late last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a "concerning acceleration" of fatal drug overdoses. This was largely attributed to factors associated with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, such as barriers to treatment, increased stress, economic insecurity, and isolation.
The alert from the CDC came after a deadly jump in drug overdose deaths from 2018 to 2019, with the majority involving opioids like heroin and fentanyl. While the COVID-19 crisis has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in the United States alone over the past ten months, rising rates of drug relapse and drug overdose has become an increasingly urgent public health concern.
Loving someone who struggles with drug addiction can be painful. Losing someone to those struggles can bring a pain unimaginable to those who have not experienced that type of loss themselves.
Moving forward after losing a loved one to drug overdose is no simple feat. This can bring up a wide range of emotions—some of which may be predictable, and others unexpected.
Processing the loss of a loved one due to overdose is not a simple or predictable process. Here, you will find guidance on how to navigate this process, and additional coping resources for grief to support you and others affected by this loss.
Who Can Be Affected By An Overdose?
Drug overdose does not affect only the person who has passed. Many people struggling with substance abuse have friends, family members, spouses, and children who are affected by their loved one’s struggles and want to help their loved one.
Not all people who are affected by this loss may have been close to the person. Losing a coworker to drug overdose, a member of your church, or a distant relative you’d lost touch with can still bring with it a sense of grief.
You may not experience this loss as deeply as those closest to the person who has passed. Even still, a loss of this kind that can expose just how many lives a person touched in life—and the marks they leave behind.
Processing Your Loss
What does it mean to “process” a loss? Clinical therapist, Noam Shpancer, PhD., provides a general definition of this as performing a series of operations on something in order to change or preserve it.
Within a therapeutic context, processing something—be it an experience of trauma, a strong emotional reaction, or loss—can, well, be a process. It can take many forms and look differently for some compared to others.
What processing loss looks like for you can depend on a wide range of factors, such as where you are in the grieving process, how you’ve come to understand loss, and strategies of coping that bring you comfort.
For a step-by-step guide on how to process the loss of a loved one to overdose, here are some ideas for where to begin:
Acknowledge Your Loss
Processing the death of a loved one begins with acknowledgement. For some people, avoiding the reality of their loss can be a defensive strategy. If you don’t acknowledge the pain, it isn’t there.
But this isn’t how living with loss works. While avoidance can certainly be a coping strategy, it is not a supportive one. In time, this will only hurt you. And it will slow your ability to heal and move forward.
Name your loss. Speak it. Write it. Type it. Shout it. Giving that loss a name—giving it a space in your life—allows you to confront it. To cope with it, and in time, to heal.
Be Honest About Your Emotions
Healing from loss requires us to be honest with ourselves. The loss of a loved one to drug or alcohol abuse adds a unique layer of complexity that cannot easily be explained.
Let’s be honest: loving someone who is addicted to drugs can be an enormous challenge. Drug addiction can make a person unrecognizable from who they were before they began using. They may become spiteful, violent, withdrawn, or lose that ‘spark’ of what made them who they were: someone you cared for deeply.
It’s not uncommon to feel a sense of relief. This can be a painful thing to admit. But if you want to truly be honest with yourself, you must accept the full spectrum of your emotions with grace. Do not feel ashamed. Do not hurt yourself or hide from this. Name it. Feel it.
The experience of loss can unveil the darkest parts of ourselves. You may feel angry, distraught, vengeful, and empty. You may feel nothing at all, at least for a time.
There is no wrong way to feel after losing someone to their addiction. The process of grieving a loss is not linear. It is not always what we expect it to be.
Give Yourself Permission to Grieve
You deserve to grieve, with no exceptions or apologies. No matter who your loved one was while they were alive, what they did, or how strong your relationship was when they passed. Grief is something that cannot be explained simply.
Allow yourself to feel this grief. Healing from the loss of a loved one to drugs can be a complicated journey. Take this journey one step at a time.
Tips for Coping With Your Grief
How someone copes with loss and grief can look different for everyone. Not everyone may find comfort in the same ways. The step-by-step guide referenced above on how to cope with grief following the death of an addicted loved one may be a helpful starting point.
Healing from grief is a long-term process. Before we can heal, we have to give ourselves space to process. Healing is a journey. It’s not an easy one, and it’s not something we can expect from those we know who have experienced loss right away.
Loss is a deep form of pain. It can affect you physically, mentally, psychologically, and spiritually. As you give yourself permission to begin the healing process, it is important to recognize ways in which you can help yourself as you look forward.
Consider Seeking Professional Support
Seeking professional support from a therapist or grief counselor can be exceptionally beneficial as you begin the process of moving forward, or simply staying afloat.
Reaching out to anyone in your life, as long as you’re not facing this alone, can be important. But at the same time, we don’t want to place our friends, our families, our spouses in the role of a therapist.
Speaking to a mental health professional allows you to unleash the full burden of your loss on someone who is trained to help you work through your experience in a way that is healthy and supportive.
Through counseling, you can not only speak about your loss, but also talk about how it felt to live with someone who was hurting so deeply, and how that has affected you.
Counseling can also provide a space to learn more about yourself and improve lines of communication between yourself and others who may also be grappling with their grief.
Find A Support Group
Healing is not a solitary act. Love, friendship, and community can be essential components of the healing process. This understanding is a cornerstone of many support groups that exist for people who have experienced loss, trauma, mental illness, and substance abuse.
If you lack a reliable support system, finding a support group can give you the connection and support you may be missing. Most communities offer grief support groups. During COVID-19, many community support groups have moved online.
If your community doesn’t have a grief support group, there are many online support group options.
Take Care of Yourself
Above all, what’s most important during this process is to take care of yourself. Make an effort to ensure you’re eating enough, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, and honoring your boundaries for what you can take on at this time.
Set alarms for meals. Talk to a friend, family member, spouse. Talk to a doctor if you’re having trouble sleeping or are struggling to attend to your basic needs. Ask for help. Accept help when it’s offered by others.
If you come away from this blog post with nothing else, know this: You are not alone.