Grief is a complicated emotion that’s often difficult to understand.
Depending on the circumstances, we might also be feeling anger, guilt, remorse, shame, relief, or other things. For example, we might feel relieved that our loved one is no longer suffering from an addiction, but feel guilty for having those feelings.
Losing a loved one to addiction often produces intense, complicated feelings. Addiction is complex and so are its consequences.
When we’re grieving, we might find it hard to eat, sleep, work, or think clearly. Grief is an emotion that can cast a shadow over our entire lives, but with assistance, it can become more manageable.
Many people have lost loved ones to addiction. Drug overdoses have killed more than 750,000 U.S. residents since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Opioid drugs, a class of drugs that includes heroin, fentanyl, and some prescription drugs, are responsible for many of these deaths. According to the CDC, opioid-related deaths increased almost six times from 1999 through 2020.
As it has with other areas of our lives, the COVID-19 pandemic has also affected addiction. More specifically, it’s made addiction worse.
Governments have issued stay-at-home orders to stem the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. While people are less likely to contract the virus, they may be isolated, lonely, and depressed.
To combat these feelings, some people have turned to using alcohol and drugs or using more alcohol and drugs than they did before. They might not seek help because they
- Are afraid they’ll catch the virus.
- Can’t meet in-person with therapists or sobriety support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
- Don’t have access to treatment centers because financial problems have closed them down.
Economic concerns can be a barrier to treatment. If people lose their jobs, they often lose their health insurance. They might find it more difficult to afford the cost of food and shelter, let alone rehab treatment.
These barriers are very real to many. Writing in The Lancet in 2020, Dr. Leana S. Wen and Nakisa B. Sadeghi noted that only 20% of U.S. residents with an opioid use disorder can access treatment when they need it. They add that medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is featured at fewer than half of the community health centers in the country.
Due to such barriers and other factors, Wen and Sadeghi said that U.S. drug overdose-related deaths rose an estimated 13% in January-June 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. Some U.S. states saw their overdose deaths total rise more than 30% percent.
Other statistics are equally grim. For the 12-month period ending in May 2020, more than 81,000 U.S. residents died due to drug overdoses, according to the CDC. Synthetic (man-made) opioids such as fentanyl were a major factor in these deaths.
The CDC added that 10 western U.S. states reported that the numbers of deaths related to synthetic opioids rose more than 98 percent, yet another indicator of the danger of drugs and drug misuse.
Shame, stigma, and drug-related deaths
Those thousands lost to drug overdoses aren’t numbers.
They leave behind people who loved them, enjoyed their company, found them endearingly annoying, or maybe a combination of those; their deaths cause pain and grief.
But when addiction leaves people behind, they may be afraid to acknowledge the true cause of their loved ones’ deaths. While some people are forming new perspectives, there is still shame and stigma surrounding substance abuse and addiction.
Some people are quick to shame people who have problems with drugs or alcohol. Since they think addiction is a moral failing, judgmental people might think that people with addictions and the people who love them are bad people.
The language they use sometimes reflects their beliefs. They might use words such as alcoholics, addicts, junkies, or other labels to describe people who use drugs or alcohol.
To reverse this negativity, there are terms that emphasize the person instead of the addiction. Such terms include people with addictions or people with substance use disorders.
These terms place people first. They acknowledge that people might have problems but are not defined by those problems.
This practice could destigmatize addiction because it can demonstrate just how common addiction is.
Not having to face judgment and stigma could help people feel freer to discuss what caused their loved ones’ deaths. They’ll be less afraid that others will judge them because they were the parent or partner of a person who died from addiction.
Destigmatizing addiction can also help people feel less ashamed about addictions and other conditions, such as HIV and mental illnesses. They might be more likely to discuss them, admit they have problems, and seek assistance before it’s too late.
Blame, guilt, and anger
Words can haunt a grieving person.
People mourning the loss of addicted loved ones might be facing shame and judgment from others. They also might be blaming and judging themselves for things they did, didn’t do, or think they should have done or should not have done.
A mother of a man who died of a drug overdose after a lifetime of drug-related struggles and other problems wrote to an advice columnist in The Atlantic. She said that much of her grief centered on blaming herself for her son’s problems.
Such feelings are common. After twenty-year-old Landon Biggers died of an opioid overdose in 2017, his mother, father, and sister have struggled with grief, guilt, and self-blame.
Brittaney Biggers told the Associated Press that she felt guilty when her father recalled what she told him as he tried to save her brother Landon’s life: “Keep going, Daddy.”
She doesn’t remember saying this. Brittaney Biggers also felt guilty for continuing to live with her parents, but thought she’d feel guilty if she moved away while they were all grieving. She mourned not only Landon’s death but the lives she felt that he and the family were supposed to lead.
Mollie and Doug Biggers, Brittaney’s parents, have also wrestled with intense emotions. Like her daughter, Mollie Biggers has tried to keep busy to distract herself.
Doug Biggers once felt ashamed about his son’s addiction and death, feeling that he failed as a parent, but he also became increasingly angry about opioid addiction and the toll it’s taken on so many families like his.
Worrying that people might view his son as a statistic about opioid addiction – one of the 47,600 U.S. residents who died of opioid-related overdoses in 2017 — and not the vibrant person he was, Doug Biggers said he wanted Landon’s life and death to provide some sort of meaning. He’s been eager to work with organizations that help people who are grieving due to addiction-related deaths.
Interacting with organizations and groups can be a healthy tactic to manage grief. The therapist in The Atlantic explained this to the mother who was experiencing grief and self-blame about the addiction-related death of her son. The therapist recommended that the mother join a support group.
The therapist, Lori Gottlieb, said that such groups include members who understand what their fellow members have been experiencing and can bear witness to it.
Sharing problems in support groups can be helpful in many situations. The groups might include:
- People grieving the addiction-related deaths of their loved ones.
- People who’ve experienced trauma or other conditions.
- People who are trying to stay sober from alcohol or drugs
Such groups can help people realize that other people have faced similar problems. Since their experiences are similar, these people can therefore understand their pain. Group members can share tactics that worked — or didn’t work — when dealing with their problems.
Since the mother felt she made mistakes with her son, Gottlieb also suggested that the grieving mother create a list of all the good things she did for him. This exercise could counteract her negative feelings with more positive ones.
Writing about our feelings is talking about them. Putting our feelings into words can help us understand them better, which can be useful when dealing with grief and other complex emotions.
We might keep a journal to chronicle our feelings. Scholars have found that recording your thoughts in journals, a practice also known as journaling, can help us manage our mental health.
Journals can be formal, such as grief journals you can buy online or can be more informal, such as some pieces of paper or a notebook, computer documents, or recorded messages on your smartphone.
In journaling, it doesn’t matter how you document your thoughts, just that you document them. Seeing or hearing these thoughts can help us process them in the present and provide a record for the future.
For example, while writing about grief, we might notice that we’ve written about being angry in several journal entries. We could use the entries to see if there’s a common trigger that’s making us angry.
After noticing such patterns, we can discuss in our journals why we’re angry and try to determine the subject of our anger. Are we angry with
- Ourselves because we feel we could have helped our loved one more or prevented their death?
- Others because they say the loved one was a bad person because they had an addiction?
- Our loved one because they died and we wanted more time with them?
- Life in general because it’s so different after the death of our loved one?
By understanding our anger or other feelings, we can be better equipped to talk about them with a support group, a therapist, or a supportive friend or family member. Journaling can be a useful tool to address anger and other feelings that relate to grief.
The stages of grief
In fact, anger is a feeling that commonly accompanies the loss of a loved one. Anger is one of psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and grief specialist David Kessler’s stages of grief. The stages are:
- Denial: People in this stage may say they’re fine, keep busy, or avoid talking about the death of a loved one. They may feel as if they’re numb or in shock.
- Anger: Getting into fights, using drugs and alcohol, and being irritable or pessimistic could be all signs that someone is experiencing anger while grieving. They could be feeling rage, impatience, or resentment.
- Bargaining: During the bargaining stage, people might worry and judge themselves or others, thinking that if only they did or didn’t do certain things, things would be better. Anxiety, fear, shame, and guilt are common in this stage.
- Depression: Depression in people who are grieving can look like other forms of depression and include crying, drug or alcohol use, less energy to socialize or do other things, and changes in sleep and appetite. People in this stage might feel sad, hopeless, and/or overwhelmed.
- Acceptance: Accepting a loved one’s death includes accepting the situation for what it is, adapting and being mindful, and communicating honestly. Doing these things can help people feel brave and strong and help validate their feelings.
- Meaning: Finding meaning can help people deal with their loved one’s death and find peace in their own lives.
David Kessler’s connections to these stages are personal as well as professional, as his twenty-one-year-old son died of an accidental drug overdose. Kessler said his writings, lectures, and workshops about grief have helped him find meaning in his son’s life and death.
“This wasn’t what my life was supposed to look like, but I faced a decision that everyone faces in grief,” Kessler told the Los Angeles Times. “Is this just hideous, or can it be part of my son’s legacy and meaning that he comes with me to so many cities to help people?”
He acknowledges that grief is messy, complicated, and affects people differently. People might not experience the stages of grief the same way, so it’s important to be patient with people who are grieving, whether it’s other people or yourself.
Grief is difficult under the best of circumstances. When someone is mourning because a loved one died from something that’s misunderstood or stigmatized, such as addiction, grief can be even more difficult.
Talking about addiction and addiction-related grief can help comfort grieving people. Fortunately, there are many ways to discuss the subjects.
Grief Health Resources
Support groups, forums, and online options
Support groups may be in-person or online. You can also find local support groups in different geographic areas.
- grasphelp.org – GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing). Meetings and resources for people who have lost loved ones to drugs or alcohol
- griefanonymous.com – Grief Anonymous. Meetings for grieving people and resources through the Grief Resource Network
- compassionatefriends.org – The Compassionate Friends. Meetings and resources to families who have lost a child
- griefshare.org – GriefShare. Meetings and resources for people who have lost loved ones
- hopeagain.org.uk – Hope Again. Children and young people who have lost loved ones can post vlogs and find resources and personal stories about grief
- onlinegriefsupport.com – Online Grief Support. Online groups that connect grieving people to peers, grief counselors, and resources
- griefhealingdiscussiongroups.com – Grief Healing Discussion Groups. Online discussion groups about grief
- forums.grieving.com – Grieving.com. Forums and chat options that offer community-based support
- griefincommon.com – Grief in Common. Service that allows people to meet virtually to share their grief
Workshops, courses, and programs
- davidkesslertraining.com – David Kessler Training. Grief specialist David Kessler offers online workshops and courses related to grief
- mygriefconnection.org – My Grief Connection. Workshops, courses, guides, and other resources related to grief and mental illnesses
- good-grief.org – Good Grief. Programs and resources for grieving children
- griefrecoverymethod.com – The Grief Recovery Method. Workshops and programs designed for different communities of grieving people
- rochester.edu – Journaling for Mental Health. Overview of journaling and the mental health benefits it could provide
- mindfulnessandgrief.com – Mindfulness & Grief Institute. Journaling assistance, a podcast, and other resources about grief and mindfulness
- brainandlife.org – How to Manage Grief Through Journaling. Article from Brain & Life magazine about using journaling to address grief
Stages of grief
- washington.edu – The Stages of Grief: Accepting the Unacceptable
- psycom.net – The Five Stages of Grief. Written before the sixth stage was developed, this page explains how grieving people might think and behave
- onecommune.com – The Sixth Stage of Grief with David Kessler
Shame, stigma, and addiction
- cdc.gov – The Drug Overdose Epidemic: Behind the Numbers
- thelancet.com – The Opioid Crisis and the 2020 U.S. Election: Crossroads for a National Epidemic
- cdc.gov – Overdose Deaths Accelerating During COVID-19
- drugabuse.gov – Words Matter – Terms to Use and Avoid When Talking About Addiction
- drugabuse.gov – Nora’s Blog: Addressing the Stigma That Surrounds Addiction
- theatlantic.com – Dear Therapist: I Blame Myself for My Son’s Death
- apnews.com – After the Overdose: A Family’s Journey into Grief and Guilt
- pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Drug and Opioid-Involved Overdose Deaths – United States, 2013-2017
- grasphelp.org – GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing)
- urmc.rochester.edu – Journaling for Mental Health
- etsy.com – Grief Journal
- blog.therachat.io – How to Use Journaling in Therapy | Helping Your Clients Get Started with a Journal
- washington.edu – The Stages of Grief: Accepting the Unacceptable
- latimes.com – Author Adds a Sixth Stage of Grief, One He’s Had to Live
Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.
Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.