Healing After Overdose Loss

A friend or family member has died of a drug overdose. Death and grief are always hard, but when someone dies from drug use, understanding your feelings and knowing what to think and say about the death can be especially difficult. This article offers compassionate guidance for coping with your own grief as well as helping others affected by the loss.


Addiction and the Opioid Epidemic
People of all backgrounds and socioeconomic levels are affected by addiction. Addiction is a recognized disease in which the pleasure centers of the brain get taken over by the need for the drug. Addicts cannot control their behavior.

In the United States today, the majority of drug overdose deaths involve an opioid, such as prescription painkillers or heroin. About two and a half million people are addicted to these drugs, and nearly 100 people die each day from an overdose. In fact, opioid use and overdose trends have grown so bad that the Department of Health & Human Services has labeled the problem an epidemic.

You are not alone. Millions of families and friends have lost a loved one to drug use. This doesn’t make the death of the unique person you cared about any less tragic. It does mean that there are resources to help you and many people who may be able to understand and support you.


Coping with the Stigma
Even though addiction is a disease that can affect anyone, there is still a social stigma associated with drug overdose deaths. For you, a person who has lost someone special, this can seem doubly unfair. Not only has someone you cared about died, but others may avoid you or make you feel ashamed about the death.

Remind yourself that your friend or family member died of a common, deadly disease. Learn more about opioid use and how it’s affecting so many. Reach out to others impacted by overdose death. Talk openly about what happened. Shining a light of openness and empathy on overdose deaths will help you and others heal.


A Complicated Grief
Grief is what you think and feel on the inside after someone you care about dies. Your grief will naturally be complicated by the cause of this death. If the person who died was young and otherwise healthy, that fact will affect your grief. We typically feel a sense of injustice and a stolen future whenever a young person dies.

We also often feel anger when deaths are caused by behaviors. You might be mad at the person who overdosed, at others whom you perceive enabled the behavior (such as a drug dealer), or at medical staff or police who may have been involved. You might also feel guilty that you weren’t able to help the person stop using drugs before it was too late—even though the behavior was outside your control. Whatever your complicated thoughts and feelings may be, your task now is to express them in healthy ways.

Mourning the Death
While grief is what you feel on the inside, mourning is what you do when you express your grief on the outside. Crying is mourning. Attending the funeral is mourning. Talking to others about the death is mourning. Part of your mourning will be about the cause of the death. Over time, the larger part of your mourning will be about the loss of a special, unique person who was loved by you and others.