Last Updated on September 27, 2019 by Dr. Alberto Solà

The loss of a loved one is a monumental event that can leave you awash in grief, sadness, anger, and a host of other emotions. When that loved one has died because of a drug overdose, those emotions can feel even more intense due to the tragic circumstances.

In 2019, International Overdose Awareness Day is August 31. This observance is meant to reduce the stigma surrounding overdose deaths while also acknowledging the grief of people who have lost a loved one to drugs. It is a universal trauma experienced by people from all walks of life, and International Overdose Awareness Day is meant to acknowledge those who are suffering and serve as a reminder that drug overdose deaths can be preventable. In commemoration of this international observance, here is a look at some of the different forms of grief people may experience, and how to cope with the loss of a loved one due to an overdose.

The Grief Surrounding Overdose Deaths

The emotions surrounding an overdose can be debilitating. For some people, hearing the news that a loved one died due to drugs is unsurprising, as it is the sad end to a long struggle with addiction. For others, the news can take them by surprise—perhaps they didn’t know their loved one was using drugs, or perhaps it was an isolated instance of experimentation gone horribly and fatally wrong. In either case, the resulting emotions felt by surviving friends and family members can be devastating.

For instance, a major emotion people in this situation have to deal with is guilt. They may feel they didn’t try hard enough to help their loved one with their drug addiction (even if in actuality they did everything they could), or they may take responsibility for not knowing their loved one well enough to realize there was a drug problem. It is easy to fall into the trap of saying, “If only I did something, she would be alive right now.”

That guilt can also spill over into blame, where the loved one blames themselves for not taking the necessary action to prevent an overdose. The blame can also be directed at others, such as the friend who supplied the drugs or family members who didn’t take action. As a result of these emotions, and because of the stigma surrounding overdose, some people may feel the need to isolate and not discuss what happened, which can cause great mental and emotional damage.

Death of a loved one, due to any circumstance, can trigger great stress. This stress, if not properly managed, can lead to issues with physical, mental, and emotional health, and there can be a high risk of anxiety and depression. The stress can also lead to a greater chance of relationship problems between surviving loved ones, especially those who are grieving in different ways, blaming each other, or not discussing their true feelings. For all these reasons, it is important to find healthy coping strategies that will help you come to terms with your irreplaceable loss.

How to Cope with Loss from an Overdose Death

It’s important to note that overdose deaths are unfortunately not a rare occurrence. In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated there were 70,237 drug overdose deaths in the United States. If you have lost a loved one to overdose, you are not alone, and you should not be ashamed to reach out for help in grieving.

In fact, one of the most important ways to cope with the loss of a loved one to an overdose is to talk about the death and your resulting feelings. Do not let shame or stigma surrounding drug-related deaths stop you from speaking your truth. No matter how dire it may seem, sharing your story with a trained therapist, a peer support group, or an empathetic friend will make all the difference in how you heal from your loss and move forward.

Some people find it helpful to establish a support network to get them through this terrible time. A counselor trained in grief can help you process your emotions, while a support group for people whose loved ones struggled with drugs gives you the valuable opportunity to connect with others who have been in your shoes and can offer wisdom and sympathy. These connections in your support network can also guide you to other resources that may help you as well.

Being open about your loss and struggles will help you get through the mourning process. You have experienced a tremendous loss, and you need to work through it. Don’t apologize for experiencing normal expressions of grief.

Another common symptom of grief is the lack of interest in basic self care. Some people who are mourning the death of a loved one lose their appetite, lack the energy to exercise, or develop insomnia or other sleep problems. But it’s much harder to heal from a loss when you feel worn out, stressed, or generally depleted. It’s important to take care of yourself as part of your overall wellness. Try to eat whole foods, drink a lot of water, exercise (even if it’s just a daily walk), and aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night. This self-care isn’t limited to physical needs, but can include spiritual ones as well. If you believe in a higher power, you can find great comfort in your house of worship and the fellowship of believers there. Lift it all up, the good and the bad, and you will find yourself moving forward over the course of time. 

As you work through the grief, you will become refined as if by fire—life will not be the same as it was before the overdose but it can hone your inner strength. When you have healthy coping strategies, you can acknowledge this major change in your life, that you have suffered incalculable loss, but you can also try to make something good come out of it. Perhaps you will become a peer mentor in your support group, or you will volunteer at a drug and alcohol counseling center. In these ways, you can honor the memory of the loved one you have lost.