This personal essay was written by ASD Public Relations Specialist, Jessica Farren, and examines how an overdose death creates barriers for healing and complicates the grief process. (Reprinted with permission from the author).
A comprehensive resource list for those bereaved by overdose is available here.
7 Ways Grief is Complicated by Overdose
Grief is a deserted island. No two people grieve exactly the same. You could be sitting in a room full of people who are all mourning the same loss as you, and still feel alone and misunderstood. This is because no two relationships are the same, and every person in that room had a different connection with the person who is now gone. No one else can see or feel the memories you relive in your head after the loss of a loved one. This is why so many in our profession take issue with theory that there are “stages of grief” everyone goes through after a loss. It is inaccurate to suggest that grief is somehow a universal experience when in fact it is the most alienating emotion we must endure as human beings.
While any type of grief can make one feel like they are trapped on a deserted island, the level of isolation that occurs as a result as ‘disenfranchised grief’ –a term I never heard until about 5 years after my father’s death–is more on par with being trapped on an empty planet in an unknown solar system. None of the sympathy cards you receive, bereavement articles you read or support groups you attend feel relevant to your situation. The people you expected to help you the most are incapable of saying the right thing, or anything at all. The added emotional stressors you encounter like guilt, resentment and shame must often be stifled because you do not have an outlet to express them.
Before my father overdosed in 2006, I had never been acquainted with grief. When I stood at the foot of that dark, imposing mountain in front of me, I didn’t realize I’d be faced with a steeper climb than most. During my father’s long battle with his addictions, our relationship greatly deteriorated, and in my ignorance I actually believed I wouldn’t grieve for him at all if he died. I was confident in my idiotic conviction that the blow would somehow be softened by knowing in advance how self-destructive his behavior was. I should’ve been prepared for this: that thought actually crossed my brain. But the reality of loss is not something our imaginations can ever conjure. Knowing how long my father walked on the edge between life and death has only exacerbated my grief in every way imaginable.
When a loved one dies due to substance abuse, there are several factors that can compound and intensify your grief, making it more difficult to come to terms with the loss. The list below highlights the need for more grief support specifically for those who have lost a loved one to substance abuse.
1. Guilt and Regret Are Unavoidable
The absolute worst moment of my entire life was not that moment I found out my dad passed. It happened about ten minutes later, when I escaped from that living room of sobs to find the letter he had sent me from rehab. For many months, I had refused to either read or discard the letter and so it waited, untouched, in a box inside my closet. The feeling that came over me as I read my father’s unanswered words of apology was deeper and darker than any emotion I have ever felt before or since.
When I try to express the feelings I still experience to this day when I think about the letter, the most common response I hear are assurances that what happened wasn’t my fault, and that I shouldn’t blame myself for what happened to my dad. But no matter how many times I hear this, the guilt I feel is stronger than all of that grounded logic. I know in my head that had I read that letter, even if I replied, my dad would have still gone down the same path, but none of that changes the fact that he died believing I either didn’t read it or didn’t care enough to respond. To pretend that it doesn’t bother me, that I don’t wish it was different or that I had handled it differently, would just be lying to myself.
As a society, we tend to react to those who experience guilt after a loved one’s death by insisting, “you shouldn’t feel that way.” Unfortunately, it is not so simple to just turn those feelings off or to keep that accusatory voice out of your head. This is further complicated when a person struggled with addiction before their death, because as a family member in that situation they are getting hit from every direction with differing advice. Guilt and regret are unavoidable, because you will always question if you took the right approach. I’ve seen this within my own family. While I regret shutting my father out and not opening his last letter to me, close relatives of mine regret trying to help him by giving him money.
When someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol, those who love them will hear so many different and completely contradictory schools of thought on the best ways to help them. You will hear that you have to show your support and let the addict know you are there. You will also hear that you can’t enable the person, that you should completely shut them out so they hit rock bottom. While one expert insists that you must visit and keep in touch with them while in rehab to show your encouragement, others will say to let them focus solely on their recovery without interference.
The fact remains that no one knows the correct course of action to take when a loved one is addicted to drugs, but everyone wants to give an answer. As a result, family members and close friends are often left feeling like they are to blame after a loved one’s overdose regardless of what actions they took or didn’t take while the person was still alive.
2. Grief Support Groups Offer Little Support*
“They all looked at me like there was something wrong with me. I didn’t fit in at all.”
This was my mother’s reaction after returning home from the one and only Widows Grief Support Group she ever attended. My mom had already been a widow for several years when her good friend lost her husband to lung cancer, so she thought attending the group with her friend would give her an opportunity to help her friend while helping herself. She expected to find a voice to echo her own, but quickly discovered her complicated feelings about her late husband were not shared by anyone in attendance.
My mom wanted to find a place where she could talk about all of the conflicting emotions she had whenever she thought about my dad. She hoped someone might understand the anger that engulfed her when her best friend and partner chose drugs over their future lives together. She thought that perhaps another widow might identify with what it was like to simultaneously long for and rage against the memory of her husband.
In all fairness to the other widows, resentment and bitterness toward the deceased are not commonly exhibited in this type of environment. Most widows go to support groups to share fond memories, to discuss feelings of sadness and loneliness or to talk about adjusting to life without a partner. My mother simply could not relate to their stories, nor could they relate to hers.
For many years, families like ours have had little support within the grief community. I believe this needs to change. The opioid epidemic has become so widespread and prevalent that just about every person in the country has been affected in one way or another by an overdose death. The number of overdoses that have occurred just in the past few years is staggering. Complacency is no longer an option – we have to bring these families together to talk about the difficult emotions associated with this type of loss. Bringing together families to share their experiences will only help illuminate possible solutions. I believe that real change can only be achieved if honest conversations like this are encouraged and supported.
*Writers Note – Updated 5-2-2018
Since publishing this article, I have learned of a national organization dedicated to providing grief support to those who have lost a loved one to an overdose. GRASP – Grief Recovery After A Substance Abuse Passing – holds local grief support meetings all across the United States and also manages a Facebook group with over 7,000 members in the online community.
3. There Are So Many Unanswered Questions
What was it that made him start using again? Was he alone when he died? Did he feel any pain at the end? Did he intentionally take his own life? Who was the last person he reached out? Did I enable him? Where did the drugs come from? What more could I have done?
The questions begin to start multiplying even before the death occurs, and afterwards you are left with the uneasiness of knowing they will never be answered. The road to recovery is perilous and lined with many temptations and traps. Many people, like my father, were on that road headed towards long-term sobriety when their addiction snuck up behind them. I have read story after story about family members who believed their loved one was getting clean at the time of their passing. When you’re blindsided by such a devastating blow, it is impossible not to go back and try to reconstruct in your mind the events leading up to it. To try to make sense of the senseless.
My father had seven years clean under his belt when he decided to secretly see a doctor who was not familiar with his history with substance abuse. After a single visit with this doctor, my father was able to walk out with a prescription to Adderall - a highly addictive stimulant used to treat ADHD. It wasn’t long before my mother was finding blue dust caked onto their furniture from my dad creating powder from the pills so that he could snort it. This led to their eventual separation. My father was only living on his own for a few months before he began using street drugs.
When I think about the chain of causation, I realize how so much of the pain my family has endured can be traced back to that one moment in the doctor’s office. I try to picture what this doctor might have looked like, what his voice might have sounded like. I create an entire scene in my head of my dad complaining to this stranger about not being able to focus. I wonder how many seconds it was before the doctor wrote out that prescription. Did he hesitate at all? Did he ever ask my father if he had a history with drug abuse? Did he question for even a single moment how such a decision could have an affect on a person? Did my father even have to lie to obtain that prescription?
It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change anything. But the questions still persist, all these years later.
4. A Death Window Is Harder Than An Anniversary
While this is not the case for every family affected by addiction, it was for mine and I can tell you that as arbitrary as calendar dates are, they can have a big impact on how you grieve. I found out my dad died on April 23rd. However, we later learned that my father was most likely dead in his apartment for an indefinable period of time. He could have died on the 20th, the 21st or the 22nd. Because of this, I find myself sinking into a deep, prolonged depression every time April rolls around. Some years it hits me worse than others. Because the death window is so big, I will sometimes let the anniversary slip my mind for a period of time and then it will just hit me when I least expect it. When there is a single date on the calendar, it is a difficult reminder of your loss, but you can sort of prepare for those feelings to hit you. When it’s a four-day period however, it feels like an emotional rollercoaster that you have no control over.
5. Your View of the World Becomes Much Darker
As difficult as it is to be left with so many questions, it is sometimes better to be in the dark than to learn the answer. As many families who have lost loved ones to an overdose know well, it often takes more than a month before toxicology reports are released to family members. In my family’s case, we were told my father was found with traces of heroin in his apartment. This information was shocking enough – my father had a history with drugs and addiction but had never, to our knowledge, tried heroin. But then we were dealt another blow when we learned over a month later that he died from a batch of heroin that was fatally tainted with Fentanyl. Many others were killed that week due to the same bad batch. The drug baggies they found were stamped with smiley faces.
This information only led to more questions. I found myself asking what sort of person could sell another person pure poison? Who were these people my dad was mixed up with before he died? After that, I felt like every stranger I passed in the street could be the person who killed my father. My view of the world became much darker from that day forward and I began to view everyone in a more cynical way.
When you’re grieving, it’s hard not to point fingers, even when you know that the person who passed was ultimately responsible for their own decisions. At the time, it felt like my father was murdered and no one cared. Even now with the clarity of time, I still feel a strong, inextinguishable rage towards those who would knowingly sell another human being a substance like that. Any person who could see someone struggling to hold onto the edge of a cliff and choose to profit from their misfortune rather than help them is unredeemable in my eyes. It’s terrifying to think that there are so many people like that walking around today.
Anger is a major barrier for a lot of people when it comes to healing after an overdose. In a lot of cases, a person’s death might have been avoided if other people had intervened. There are stories you hear about people who die in the middle of a crowded room, ignored by everyone around them. I know someone whose body was dropped on his parents’ lawn for them to find. You just can’t look at people the same way after something like that happens to someone you love. You can’t. You can try to find a way to forgive, but your view of the world is never the same.
6. Phone Calls Never Cease
Bill collectors. Drug dealers. A police officer looking for the owner of an abandoned car. Every time you answer the phone, you risk having your grief triggered by one of these calls. The entire year after my father’s funeral, our phone was constantly ringing. My mom must have had over two dozen death certificates issued to prove my father’s death to all of the faceless people who called inquiring about his whereabouts. From his angry employer to the unstable addicts he used to get high with, it was rare to hear a compassionate voice from any of these callers. My parents were legally separated, but despite the fact that my mom wasn’t responsible for the debts he wracked up she was still threatened mercilessly by collection agencies. Even after years had passed, we would still get a call from time to time from someone looking for my dad. It was like someone continually ripping the scab off of a wound.
7. Societal Stigma Hinders the Grieving Process
For years after my father died, I avoided telling people who didn’t know me about him. I knew that anything I mentioned could lead to questions and I’d eventually have to reveal that my father was deceased. Once that information was exposed, the person would either ask me point blank how he passed, or begin that awkward guessing game (“Oh I’m so sorry. Was he sick?”). I found all kinds of ways to avoid using the word ‘overdose’ because I felt like that word would just paint this picture in the person’s head of who my father was and what type of family I had. I couldn’t just say ‘he died of an drug overdose’ without following it with some type of explanation – an abridged version of a story way too long and complicated to explain in a single conversation.
The problem with the word overdose is that it overshadows all of the exceptional qualities and positive achievements a person exhibits during their lifetime. I wish I had the freedom to talk about my dad without feeling the need to explain his death. I want to talk about his life and all of the positive things he brought into this world, not what killed him. I want to tell people about the times he taught me to cast a fishing line from the deck of a houseboat, or that time he bought me roses when I got sick. It feels like the details of his life and his legacy have been converted into a cautionary tale.
When you’re constantly hearing so many generalizations being made about addicts, you begin to feel as though your loved one’s identity has been hijacked. There is this weight of responsibility to protect the memory of the person you lost. Recovering from a traumatic loss is difficult enough without a cloud of shame hanging over your head.
I’ve always been opposed to censorship, but if there were one word I could just remove from society’s vernacular permanently, it would be ‘junkie’. It’s been over a decade now and just hearing or reading this word will sometimes still cause tears to spring to my eyes. To so casually define an entire person with this word that is associated with trash and garbage does nothing but hurt the loved ones of addicts and those in recovery. Hearing this word made me feel like all of society viewed my dad as disposable. The suggestion that a person’s life doesn’t have any worth because they were overpowered by their addiction is so harmful to those of us that have lost a loved one because of this. I implore everyone who reads this: the next time you hear the word coming out of your mouth, just swallow it. Please.
While there are still many injurious statements, assumptions and generalizations made today about addicts and their families, I do think there is so much more compassion than in the past. I would not feel comfortable sharing a public post on this subject otherwise. Most people today understand that addiction is a disease and that it that affects people of all backgrounds, religions, nationalities and localities. The environments and situations that lead a person down this dark path are as varied and circumstantial as battle scars.
It’s very sad that it’s taken so many deaths for society to become more sensitive about this issue. The only silver lining to be drawn is that at least family members affected by an overdose death feel a little less stigmatized today than in the past. Society is finally standing up to collectively say, “Yes, the lives of these people matter. They are not disposable. We need to do everything we can to save them.”
It has taken me many years to be able to write openly about my father’s struggles with addiction and his overdose. Losing someone to an overdose hinders and complicates the grief process in many ways. My story is just one of millions of others. For me, it has been a great comfort to hear stories from other families.
A large part of the reason why there is more compassion today for addicts than in the past is because families are no longer staying in the dark about their loved one’s struggles. From starting charitable organizations in their loved one’s name to using the obituary as a forum to raise awareness, these families have helped put an end to the era of silence. I have been so inspired by the bravery of those that speak about a loved one’s struggles with addiction. The raw honesty of their stories has helped me to find the courage to tell my own. If you are grieving for a loved one who died of an overdose, I hope these words find you and help you to feel less alone.
Written by Jessica Farren. Published with permission from the author.
Click here to see a follow-up article written 10 years after the loss of her father by overdose.