There’s grief stigma attached to overdose and addiction deaths

Grief stigma makes you feel even worse about your loss and your pain. It may feel as if people actually blame you for letting the death happen, or blame the person who has died because substance use was his choice.

Stigma about a grief reaction is not something that typically occurs when there is death of a loved one, children leaving home, the breakup of a relationship, or other life changing events.

Stigma about grief from substance abuse is a different matter, however. Family and friends may not understand what you, as a loved one, go through when you have a partner or child who is addicted to drugs/alcohol. We explore some of these reactions from others and also look at the stigma you might place on yourself about this family illness.

Other people have mistaken beliefs that hurt

  • They may believe that the addiction is a moral weakness and because of this, there may be a lack of compassion for you in your grief as they may think that because it can be controlled, then the addict has caused this for him/her/they self and therefore, don’t see it as a problem that is grieveable. This judgment leaves you alone in the grief without the needed support.
  • They may believe that you can handle the issues and deal with the addict and that as the partner or parent, this is your responsibility (and your’s alone).
  • There may be feelings of embarrassment and shame about the addiction and because of this, others may not want to be a part of your life. This is about being embarrassed for you and the family regarding the shame of the loved one who is addicted.
  • Grief is scary to many people and often, people try to avoid others’ who are grieving as it may trigger their own grief or force them to look at problems in their own lives. Unfortunately, this often happens leaving the family without supports.
  • Some may believe that you “caused’ the loved one to drink or drug and thereby, will not support you and in fact, enable the addict (i.e., the husband’s drinking buddies tell him what a bitch you are and encourage him to drown his sorrows about you).
  • If it’s a child that is addicted, then the parent/s may also be blamed for the child’s addiction and instead of helping the family in their sorrow, they remain judgmental.
  • Likewise, if it’s a child, other systems may also be judgmental such as the school, judicial, or religious system and blame instead of help.

Grief Stigma Also Comes From Your Own Beliefs Or Feelings

  • Often, as the sober family member, you may have shame about the addiction that is taking over the loved one and perhaps, the family. Or also, you may feel ashamed that you cannot control the use especially when it’s a child who is using. By staying in shame, you can’t allow yourself the power of grieving for you stay in your own blame game.
  • You may feel you “caused” the addicted individual to use by being a bad spouse, a bad mother, etc. This too, keeps you from letting go and allowing the real feelings of sadness, grief, loss, anger, frustration, etc., to be felt.
  • Your own negative judgments. While you will have feelings, if these are focused only on the horrors of the addiction, then you will not allow other feelings such as hope and joy to take place. This keeps you from empowering yourself and your family into healthy action.
  • You react vs. act. When you react out of anger, frustration, hate, or disgust towards the addict, you give him/her/they the power in the relationship as you are relating out of a stance of giving up (i.e., your beliefs about what to do). By taking actions, beginning with understanding the stigma and the need for grieving, you take the first step towards your own recovery and then you develop/utilize use healthy coping skills.

Help others understand

First understand how your own grief is affected the cause of death. Then help other people know what this grief process is like. Educate them about addictions and the stigma of addictions. Look at whether you believe in the stigma and let it go. Ask for help. Let family and friends know you need their love and support. Look for outside supports. And finally, allow yourself the ability to feel grief and sorrow over what is taking place – cry, laugh, sob, be alone, be with friends and family, be with a support group, and then “do” by taking action. By doing so, this decreases the stigma.

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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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