Written by Heidi Dike Kingston, LCSW, C-CATODSW, CSAT-C
Overdose deaths in the United States exceeded 49,000 last year, with overdoses from prescription opioids driving these numbers most in the last 10 years. While it has largely not discriminated against any age, race or socioeconomic group, overdose death has changed the way millennials and their families are facing death. While grief often feels like a desert island from a cultural standpoint, it is necessary to acknowledge and affirm our treatment efforts with young adults must change because of this epidemic.
In working with millennials and their family members, I began to recognize the dramatic impact sudden death overdose was having on the lives of my clients. Losing someone you love to overdose death leaves a person with no opportunity for anticipation of losing their friends, siblings or “using buddies.” Their own general perceptions of safety and security is dramatically shaken. While trying to get themselves well around their own substance abuse issues, clients identified persistent grief and a reduced capacity to cope with the loss; many also presented symptoms of a post-traumatic response to the death. Denial, disbelief and struggle to find reason were accompanied by feelings of guilt, sadness, shame, blame and anger. But, overwhelmingly, clients described shame, loneliness, and isolation as common factors that were preventing them from sharing the grief they were experiencing about the overdose loss.
Stigmas Preventing Ability to Grieve
Stigma surrounding drug-related death is distinguished as the main reason clients don’t feel allowed to grieve the loss of the people they loved. While the disease of addiction can affect anyone, grief from an overdose death is a complicated grief- a marginalized grief because our culture views it as a preventable and self-imposed death. Much like loss by suicide, loss of a loved one to overdose is thrown into a whole category of disenfranchised loss that few know how to gently handle. For an addict- clean or still struggling to get there-the loss of someone they care about by overdose is ignored, avoided or they are often made to feel ashamed about the death. In discussing the progression of one young man’s disease into addiction and subsequent overdose a parent reflected:
“Now, if my son had cancer, or had been in a terrible car accident, people would have been lining up to help, our freezer would have been full of food, and I would have been able to openly grieve for the healthy son I had lost. There would have been gifts, prayers, cards, phone calls and support for my family. My son doesn’t have cancer, and he has not been in an accident…So now I watch people judge my son and I want to scream. I want to shake them until their prejudices fall out of them. I want to point to the number of people who have died, not from a moral failing, but from a deadly disease…”
‘Socially Acceptable’ Death
Under the circumstances of a more socially acceptable death, people are given the space, respect and love needed to mourn in the open. For those facing an overdose death, fear of judgment and lack of compassion from society lead them to suffer in silence. These family members and friends feel fear about their part in the death; they feel dread about their own mortality and vulnerability to addiction and drug use, and they are apprehensive about the response they will get if they openly ask for support. As a social worker in the substance use disorder realm, overdose death has shaken me to the core. For one family, the pain was so profound they could not bring themselves to hold a memorial or service for their child who died; this was the second child they would bury in 36 months because of overdose death.
As healers and clinicians, first, we must recognized the need to create a safe, sacred space for our clients and families to grieve and mourn. Carving out a place for them to be vulnerable and share their thoughts and feelings makes it real. Recollecting and re-experiencing the memories and thoughts each has about the deceased accommodates loved ones to feel heard and understood. Lean heavily on art therapy or other forms of experiential therapy to give people a different place to process the grief. The creative process helps clients develop self-awareness about the overdose death, allowing them to explore the many-emotions and unresolved conflicts they may be having. The cathartic release can cleared the way to reinvest their emotional energy into themselves and their recovery.
Linking people with the right resources is imperative- remember: provide a safe space. Grief Recovery After Substance Abuse Passing or GRASP was founded to help individuals and families who have had a loved one die because of substance abuse. International Overdose Awareness Day is now a global event held on August 31st each year. It aims to raise awareness of overdose and reduce the stigma of a drug-related death. Both provide support to families and individuals with a message that the tragedy of overdose is real and deserves acknowledgment.
Grief is Grief – Loss is Loss
For Baby Boomers, Vietnam was the longest, largest, and most debilitating experience they had experienced up to that point in their lives, with far-reaching consequences, impacting the culture, economy and public policy for decades to come. Overdose death is the Vietnam of the millennial generation and their families. As healers it is our duty to help those suffering. Providing a public voice to help de-stigmatize overdose death is a good start. Helping individuals accept the reality of overdose death begins with educating others about addiction- it is a disease. And, more importantly, a loved one cannot be defined by their addiction. Death and its circumstances do not take away the value a person brought to the world. Their life deserves to be grieved, they deserve to be mourned, and every legacy deserves to be appropriately honored.
International Overdose Awareness Day: https://www.overdoseday.com/
Broken No More Foundation: http://broken-no-more.org/
NOPE Task Force (Narcotics Overdose Prevention & Education): http://www.nopetaskforce.org/