Looking after yourself following the death of friend, colleague or family member through drug use

Losing a loved one through drug use is a terribly difficult experience. Perhaps you didn’t know that your relative/friend was using drugs or perhaps it’s a problem you’ve been fighting for years. Whatever your situation, it might be that you feel you cannot cope with all that it entails, but please be assured there is support for you, and when you feel ready, do everything you can to access it. You will find details of organisations offering help by following the links on this website. Speaking or being with others who understand can be very helpful.

Bereavement is often experienced as a very isolating and lonely event and loss through drugs is no exception. If anything, feelings of loneliness and isolation are often more severe, because you find yourself in a situation which not many can relate to, and you wonder who will understand the depth of pain you are feeling.

It is possible that you are afraid your loved one will be judged for having made poor choices, or that you yourself fear being judged for having failed as a parent, partner, sibling or friend. Maybe you are judging yourself. Many of us have struggled with anxieties like these. Sadly, feelings of shame and stigma which attach to the bereaved are only too common after deaths through drugs, and is a sign that society has so far failed to grasp the complexity that lies behind drug use and addiction. You will know from your experience that there are no quick fixes, and if there were, you would have done anything you could to prevent this outcome.

A few suggestions to help yourself.

+ Look for support as soon as you can. Don’t be alone with this pain.

+ Talk about your loved one with trusted people who will listen well. Tell your story, share your memories, happy or sad. Your loved one matters just as much as any other person who has died. You can also help yourself do this through writing poems or letters or through painting or drawing. Whatever works for you.

+Show yourself kindness and compassion. You are living through a deeply traumatic life event and you will feel all sorts of physical manifestations, as well as emotional ones. You might find it hard to eat, experience pain and heaviness or extreme weariness, sleep badly or have nightmares amongst other physical effects. Your emotions are likely all over the place as well: anger, guilt, fear, disbelief, doubt, despair, anxiety and more. So there is an extra need for you to look after yourself and take it easy. Try not to expect too much of yourself.

+If you’re able, take some daily exercise, walking or running or whatever works for you. Go outside into the garden or park and draw on the resources of the natural world.

+It is likely that you will need to deal with police investigations and the coroner’s court. Most of us have no prior experience of this and there are websites which can help us with information. Ask questions and know what to expect, prepare yourself.

+Don’t be surprised or frustrated if you find the struggle to cope goes on a long time. You can and will go on to live a fulfilling life again, though it won’t be the same life. The process of learning to live without your loved one after this severe body blow takes as long as it takes, so try not to heed the voices that suggest you ‘ought to be doing better’.

And if that voice is your own, do your best to let the thought go and instead, listen to the voice of wisdom and kindness.

Supporting a person who has been through drug addiction or Overdose

Girl having counselling

A person bereaved by drugs needs the same support as anyone else, but it can be very hard for them to access that support. The reasons for this are complex. Sometimes the bereaved person feels deeply ashamed of what has happened, as if they, or the one who has died, is to blame. This sense of shame is very powerful and might prevent them from looking for help, for fear of the judgement of others, and a misplaced sense of being undeserving. They might feel stranded, wondering if they can risk going to general bereavement services, or who they dare tell about what has happened. Such feelings can lead to a sense of extreme isolation and abandonment.

Bereavements by drugs are often complicated because

+ In many cases the person who dies is young.

+ Often the death is sudden and there is no chance to say goodbye.

+ It is possible that a relationship has been damaged, and trust broken by a person’s drug habit. Alternatively, the bereaved person/people may have known nothing about drug use, and it will likely come as an extra blow on top of the bereavement itself.

+ The distressing possibility that your loved one died alone and in fear, with no help to hand.

+ The stress of police involvement and an inquest at the coroner’s court. All of this might take months, which draws out a deeply painful experience. The Coroners Courts Support Service offer invaluable support to grieving families and friends caught up in inquests. FIND OUT MORE HERE

+ The interest of media may be an additional, intrusive factor.

+ However they happen, these kinds of deaths are frequently deeply shocking to loved ones, who may go on to suffer flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks and other distressing symptoms indicative of post-traumatic stress.

A death by drugs remains a highly stigmatised event in our society, often provoking lurid headlines in the local press, and those who are affected can feel marked by it. You, as a supporter, have a vital role in coming alongside them and extending kindness in just the same way as you would after any other death. The bereaved person needs to know that you value the person who has died, and that you are non-judgemental and accepting of them, whatever the circumstances of their death.

Be prepared to listen to the bereaved person’s story, as many times as they feel a need to tell it. This is immensely helpful, especially as too often, they find it hard to understand and are trying to put together a jigsaw of hidden or missing pieces. It might be that they had no awareness of the drug problem so are trying to grasp the meaning of it all. Others might have been struggling with the problems of drugs in the family for years, are worn down by it, and have been half expecting or dreading something like this to happen. That will not have stopped it being the most horrible shock when it did happen, however. Sometimes, an extended family struggle has caused the person who is bereaved to become cut off from their community and family friends, and all of this increases the terrible loneliness of grief.

It is likely that the person you are supporting will feel highly emotional. They may well express strong feelings of guilt or anger, as they cast around looking for someone or something to blame.

Such strongly felt emotions can be powerful and distressing, and you may feel out of your depth. Don't feel guilty about this - your role is to be there whenever and in whatever way your friend needs you and they will want to remain friends with you. It might be helpful to look for additional specialist support for your friend but assure them that you can stay alongside as well. You will be giving them something of immense value. Remember you can always suggest they look at AtaLoss.org - on their own or with you - to find support that can help. 

Author: Philippa Skinner