Fri. May 20th, 2022

Why Grieving an Overdose Death Is So Hard

In 2017 America lost 75,000 individuals to drug overdoses and, as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, our country is currently in the midst of an ongoing opiate epidemic.  As both the father of three children and an addiction specialist, I’m deeply saddened by this public health crisis.  For many years now, the majority of my therapy practice has been dedicated to helping individuals and families recover from addiction.  However, I have recently decided to utilize my training and experience in grief counseling as well to offer professional help for families who have lost a loved one to an overdose.

When you lose a loved one due to an overdose, there are a number of factors that can compound and intensify your grief, making it much more difficult to come to terms with the loss.  Society treats this loss differently than a death from any other cause.  There is often a belief that the one who died must have somehow been a bad person.  And for those of us left behind, that we too must have somehow been a bad parent, a bad spouse, a bad partner, a bad sibling, a bad friend, etc. or the person we love wouldn’t have died.  These beliefs are simply not true.

For those and the other reasons discussed below, an overdose death creates unique barriers for healing and complicates the grief process.  And that’s why often none of the sympathy cards you receive, bereavement articles you read or support groups you attend feel relevant to your situation.  (Internationally known bereavement therapist, author and educator Alan Wolfelt, PhD, CT refers to this as “Complicated Grief.”  My next blog goes into more detail about Complicated Grief, the grieving process and offers tips and resources for coping with an overdose death).

An Overdose Death Feels Avoidable

Much like suicide grief, there is a complexity in overdose deaths because most grievers feel like the death was somehow preventable.  This can create an array of complicated emotions linked back to this feeling or belief:


Although guilt can be a component of grief from many types of losses, overdose deaths often present several different kinds of guilt:

  • Friends and family may feel guilt that they could have (or should have) done something to prevent the loss

  • Guilt that the family member suffered from addiction (i.e. a parent, spouse, etc. feels that it is their fault the person developed an addiction in the first place)

  • Guilt that they may be feeling a sense of relief after years of addiction impacting the family and friends

  • Obsession over actions taken (or not taken) to support the person who died


Shame is something we feel based on our perception that others think we could have or should have done something different – that others are judging us or our loved one.  Shame can manifest in various ways in the case of an overdose death:

  • Shame that the family member suffered from addiction (i.e. a parent believing others think it was somehow their fault or they were a bad parent for having an addicted child)

  • Shame for enabling the person who died

  • Shame for not doing enough to “help” the person who died

  • Shame for the person who died (feeling that others blame that person for their addiction and/or death, and they are therefore less worthy of mourning)


In overdose deaths, often there is a great deal of blame among and between parents of children who died drug related deaths (similar to those who had children die by suicide).  This is both self-blame, as well as blame between friends and family members.  Some common feelings that arise around blame are:

  • Blame toward those who used drugs/alcohol with the person who died

  • Self-blame for the person developing an addiction

  • Blame toward the person who died for their own death

  • Blame toward family members for not preventing the death

  • Obsession over actions taken (or not taken) to support the person who died

Stigma and Isolation

Even though we know addiction touches hundreds of thousands of families each year, the family and friends of those experiencing addiction often suffer in silence due to the feelings of stigma, guilt and shame that surround this topic.  The resulting feelings of isolation from reluctance to talk about the addiction often continue into grieving an overdose death:

  • Difficulty accepting the circumstances of the death (denial about drug involvement)

  • Reluctance to openly discuss the cause of death

  • Reluctance to participate in support groups or counseling

  • Hesitance to seek support from friends and family

People sometimes mistakenly say inappropriate things to grievers anyway, and with overdose deaths people can make some really insensitive comments that may drive us further into isolation.  We are often made to feel that our loved one’s death is not as worthy of grief and mourning as other deaths (i.e. he did it to him/her self).


Fear and Anxiety

Once a family has lost a loved one to addiction, fear can increase and become consuming:

  • Fear that other family members will start abusing substances

  • Fear that others who are already using substances will also overdose

  • Fear that others who are in recovery will relapse

All of this anxiety can lead to mistrust between surviving family members and friends.  Survivors may then attempt to control those around them, trying to protect them from addiction and overdose.  The fear and control can become obsessive if not addressed.


The opioid epidemic has become so widespread and prevalent that just about every person in the country has been (or knows someone who has been) affected in one way or another by an overdose death.  Complacency is no longer an option – I believe we need to bring these families together to talk about the difficult emotions associated with this type of loss.  However, many people who have lost a loved one to an overdose find typical grief groups offer little support.  I have written this blog to begin that conversation.


by Dr. Joseph Kirkpatrick

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