Contributor: Mohsen Vazirian, MD, psychiatrist
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A father who had lost his 21-year-old daughter through a heroin overdose once told me, “People think this is a contagious disease. After this happened, friends with kids have avoided me.”
As a psychiatrist, I often work with families who struggle uniquely with grief and loss. When their child, sister or father dies of a drug overdose, the grief is more complicated as is the process of working through it.
Why grief is different after drug overdose
Drug use is a highly stigmatized behavior in our society. Family members of a drug user often feel shame and guilt. They can become socially isolated because of fear of being judged as bad parents or fear that their loved ones who died of addiction were bad people somehow.
However, it’s important for people to understand that opioid addiction isn’t a character flaw. It is a chronic relapsing disease with high morbidity and mortality.
Unfortunately, the stigma associated with the misuse of opioid drugs, such as prescription pain killers and heroin, has made it more difficult for drug users in need to seek available evidence-based treatments.
Common pitfall: Focusing on the addicted person
When a family member is addicted to drugs, this often happens: Most of the attention and resources may be directed toward the drug user.
This can sometimes result in shielding the drug user from the negative consequences of their behavior. It can even perpetuate the drug use. In these situations, the rest of the family needs to be aware of this common dynamic as they seek support.
How families can prevail
There is nothing more powerful than family, friends and a whole community reaching out to people after a drug overdose in their family. I recommend the following ways to seek support:
- Grief counseling. Mental health professionals can help families cope with their grief in a healthy way.
- Support groups. Families who connect to others through self-help and support groups, including 12-step programs, come to see that they are not alone. They can express their feelings and thoughts in an environment that is free of judgment.
- Friends and relatives. The continued support of people in these relationships can do a lot to help families avoid feelings of isolation, which, over time, can develop into depression or anxiety.
- Self education/reading. Families can do a lot to educate themselves about opioid addiction and overdose by reading. They come to better understand the nature of addiction as a disease. They also can see that what happened to their family member is a common outcome. This can do a lot to dampen possible feelings of guilt and shame.
Hope for struggling families
Despite the fact that overdose deaths are very difficult to cope with, I’ve seen people find new meaning in their lives.
They may become advocates for addiction treatment in their community and support others who are going through the same feelings of grief. The act of helping others can do so much to help their own healing.