Grief after a Substance Passing

Monday, August 27, 2012

While most major causes of preventable death are declining, drugs are an exception.  The death toll has doubled in the last decade, now claiming a life every 14 minutes.  Among the most commonly abused are OxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax and Soma now causing more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined.  In some ways, prescription drugs are more dangerous than illicit ones because users don’t have their guard up, “people feel they are safer with prescription drugs because you get them from a pharmacy and they are prescribed by a doctor.”  “Younger people believe they are safer because they see their parents taking them.  It doesn’t have the same stigma as taking street drugs”. 

Anyone who has lost a loved one through addiction knows that society treats that death in a much different manner than a death from any other cause and it creates unique bereavement needs.  Many drug-overdose death bereaved parents routinely misrepresent the cause of a family member’s death fearing that the person’s reputation will be greatly diminished or feel ashamed for the true cause of the death.

In a recent study conducted by Dr. William Feigelman, Phd, Dr. John Jordan, Phd and Bernard Gorman, Phd on Parental Grief after a Childs Drug Death found some interesting conclusions:

  • Higher problems were reported for a drug and suicide bereaved death in comparison to an accidental or natural death.
  • Drug death bereaved heard more child and parent blaming comments.
  • Evidence suggests that parents who lose a child to a drug-related or overdose death encountered much the same stigmatization and exclusionary treatment that suicide survivors confront.
  • Greater grief and mental health difficulties comparatively to accidental and natural cause deaths.
  • Close to half of the drug and suicide bereaved parents encountered blaming responses from their significant other.

Although many parents struggle with the challenges of losing a child to a drug overdose, it is surprising and troubling that so little research has been devoted to identifying the unique bereavement needs of this large under-served population.  In this same research study, they suggested clinicians need to pay particular attention to the social condemnation overdose drug death survivor parents confront.  Advising some to avoid “toxic” relatives and/or encouraging others to openly challenge unhelpful but well-intentioned efforts among associates  may help these parents to establish more supportive environments for their healing.

Within the last couple years, deaths of Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole Smith, and Michael Jackson, an outpouring of media attention has appeared, attesting to widespread societal interest, if not fascination, with this topic.  Yet, it is a remarkable disconnect that so many give such great thought and discussion to the subject of overdose death generally, with little more than a perfunctory glance at the impact these deaths have on surviving family members.

Following are some informative websites where additional information and support may be found:

GRASP – Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing   Grasp was created to help provide sources of help, compassion and most of all, understanding, for families or individuals who have had a loved one die as a result of substance abuse or addiction.  Grasp is part of the website,     Saving lives by empowering youth to be drug free and encouraging parents to communicate effectively with their children about drugs.      Momstell’s mission is to promote awareness and eliminate the stigma of substance abuse through improving treatment, education, legislation, policy and prevention.      On fire about the impact of addiction and need for solutions.


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Information mostly gathered from Los Angeles Times Article Drug Deaths now outnumber traffic fatalaties and Clinical Study done on Parental Grief After a Child’s Drug Death.

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