Every bereavement can be difficult and painful. But when someone we care for dies as a result of drugs or alcohol use or gambling addictions there are some common factors that can make it even harder. In addition, during their lifetime, you may have had to live with unanswered questions about your loved one’s use of drugs and alcohol.

On 3rd August 2022 the Office of National Statistics published some concerning statistics about deaths in England and Wales caused by addiction/drug poisoning in 2021. Key points were:

  • 4,859 deaths related to drug poisoning were registered in 2021 in England and Wales, equivalent to a rate of 84.4 deaths per million people; this is 6.2% higher than the rate recorded in 2020 (79.5 deaths per million).

  • Among males, there were 115.1 drug poisoning deaths registered per million in 2021 (3,275 deaths), compared with 54.1 deaths per million among females (1,584 deaths).

  • 3,060 drug poisoning deaths registered in 2021 were identified as drug misuse, accounting for 53.2 deaths per million people.

  • Rates of drug misuse death continue to be elevated among those born in the 1970s, often referred to as “Generation X”, with the highest rate in those aged 45 to 49 years.

  • The North East of England continues to have the highest rate of deaths relating to drug poisoning and drug misuse (163.4 deaths per million people and 104.1 per million, respectively); London had the lowest rate for drug poisonings (47.6 deaths per million people), and the East of England had the lowest rate for drug misuse (27.4 per million).

The cause of death is reported as drug misuse or drug poisoning (overdose). We know that bereavement can be behind many social and health crises including crime, school dropout rates, debt and relationship breakdown. We don't know, but can guess that bereavement (unresolved grief in particular) will almost certainly be one of the reasons why people start taking drugs and alcohol in the first place to numb the pain of their grief, sadly leading to addiction and sometimes death. This is why finding timely support is so important.

It can be difficult to understand addiction and how someone can appear to put alcohol or drugs or gambling above friends and family. The BEAD Project offers the following to help us understand the complexities;

Shame and stigma: Those of us who have lost a loved one to drugs or alcohol often feel that society is judging us, leading to a sense of shame and disgrace. People may assume that an addict had a choice, or that their addiction and death were their own fault. Many people will be understanding, but not knowing who is thinking like this can lead to us avoiding others and feeling isolated. 

Traumatic circumstances: When someone dies through drugs or alcohol it can be in traumatic circumstances. The police and other officials are often involved. There may be an inquest and a post-mortem which are stressful and delay funerals and memorials. We may have questions about how and why a loved one died which are never fully answered. Sometimes there is media interest which can be distressing and intrusive.

Experiences before the death: Many people bereaved through alcohol or drugs have been living with an addiction in the family, sometimes for many years. When someone close is experiencing addiction it can make life very difficult: emotionally, practically and financially. Issues you faced beforehand can often carry over into bereavement.

Suddenness and shock: Whether or not the death was expected or feared it can still feel like a devastating shock when it happens. Some people do not know beforehand that their loved one was using drugs or drinking too much and some loved ones may have only recently begun experimenting

Intensity of emotion: It can be very difficult to make sense of a death when it feels like it happened at the wrong time, and in the wrong way. Because of this, and the other factors which make bereavement through drugs and alcohol so difficult, we know it can be very, very painful. It can take a long time to work through and process this pain.

If any of this resonates with you, please don't feel alone. You can get support from the organisations listed below. They are there to help anyone who has been bereaved by an addiction and to provide you with information and advice if you are struggling.

Alcohol and Drugs:

The BEAD Project

DrugFam

Gambling:

Gambling with Lives

General support and advice on addictions

 Alcohol Gambling and Drugs: https://www.drugfam.co.uk/

Alcohol and Drugs: https://adfam.org.uk/

Support for families of Alcoholics: https://www.al-anonuk.org.uk/

Substance abuse: https://www.re-solv.org/

For Children of Alcoholics: https://nacoa.org.uk/

Help for Punjabi families who struggle with Alcohol issues: https://www.nomorepretending.co.uk/about

FREE Booklet to download

This booklet - produced by Cruse Bereavement Care and DrugFam - is for anyone bereaved through drug or alcohol use, including parents, siblings, partners, grandparents, children, friends or anyone else. Through reading it, we hope you will find some ways to help you handle this difficult time a little more easily, and that you will realise you are not alone.

Download from DrugFam website HERE

Philippa Skinner has written about her own experience of losing her son to drugs. You can read more about how she grappled to cope, with her faith and to make sense of her bereavement in her poignant book 'See you soon'. Read more about her book and purchase it HERE

Read Philippa's page on looking after yourself and others when bereaved by addiction or drug abuse HERE