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Ten Ways to Support Someone After a Death From Drugs In Their Family

How You Can Help After a Death From Drugs

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Updated February 21, 2013

It is normal for relatives and loved ones to grieve the death of someone they care about.  But when the person who has died had an addiction, or it was a death from drugs, this process can be much more complicated.

There may have been any number of negative as well as positive experiences between the the person with the addiction and the person left behind, including a history of physical, emotional or sexual abuse, legal problems or difficulties with other social relationships.  Especially if it was a death from drugs, the person who died may have had previous illnesses or close calls with death, causing worry in the relative or loved one.

So how can you be supportive?

Be Present

When trying to support someone who has just lost a relative or loved one to a death from drugs, people often wonder what to say -- struggling for those magic words that will take away the pain.  But simply being present with the bereaved person is the most important way of supporting someone who has lost an addicted loved one or relative.  You can do this by being physically present, by visiting or spending time with them, or by being available for phone calls, responding to email messages, or by sending a card, letter, or flowers.  This can be a great source of comfort for people who are a long distance from others who knew the person who died, as well as people who are isolated in other ways, such as by having social anxiety

Listen

As with being present, the best way to be supportive is to worry less about what the "right" thing to say is, and more on allowing the person who has lost the addicted relative or loved one to speak about their experience, if they choose to.  Listening involves giving the person your full attention, while allowing them space to speak without interruption.  Even if they pause, or stare off into space for a few seconds, give them time to find their words before jumping in to ask a question or prompt them to speak.

Accept the Person's Feelings

The relative or loved one of a person with an addiction, or who is bereaved by a death from drugs, is likely to have even more complex and contradictory feelings than other bereaved individuals.  They may have feelings of liberation or relief that their life will no longer be overshadowed by the unpredictability, difficulty, and even possibly abuse, that come with being in a relationship with an addicted person or drug user.  They may feel extreme sadness about what might have been -- recovery from the addiction, for example, or a more positive relationship.  And they may feel guilt about at times wishing it could all be over, and feeling somehow they brought about the death of their loved one.  None of these feelings are wrong, and your acceptance will help your friend to process them.

Express Sympathy, But Not False Empathy

Saying "I'm sorry you're going through this," or "I feel for you," may be more supportive than comments like, "I understand how you feel," particularly if you personally have not lost someone who had an addiction, or to a death from drugs.  Even if you have, the experiences and relationships are likely to have been quite different, so expressing understanding you don't have may be alienating to the bereaved person.  It's OK to not know what the person is feeling, but still be there for them.  On the other hand, expressing genuine empathy around universal human emotions that may be part of grief, such as anger, sadness, disappointment, regret, or guilt, may be supportive to the person if they express these feelings first and ask if you understand. 

Stay Neutral

This can be tricky, expecially if you had negative experiences of, or opinions about the addicted person. But it is more supportive to express no judgement or negative feelings about the person who has died, even if the bereaved person does so. If they talk about how cruel and abusive the addicted person was, express concern for them, for example, by saying,"That must have been so hard for you," rather than, "I don't know why you put up with that idiot." This will allow the bereaved person to come to terms with their own feelings, and to accept their own reasons for the way they handled the relationship, whether or not you feel they were correct.

Encourage and Support Self Care

Grief and depression can sometimes get in the way of people taking proper care of themselves.  Regular sleep, regular meals and regular exercise may fall by the wayside.  The bereaved person may stop practicing good personal hygiene and may fail to keep their home clean and tidy.  Encouraging them and helping them to do so is usually accepted as supportive, particularly if it is done in a kind, uncritical way.  Encouraging them to take a bath or shower, to get dressed in clean clothes, to eat breakfast, and to take a walk can all make a big difference to how they feel, in the short and long term. The more they are able to take care of themselves, the better they will feel (although housework should not be used to block out feelings). 

Help With Practicalities

There are many practical tasks that need taking care of on a day to day basis that can be neglected by someone who is greiving. Often, people who have just lost someone have a low level of energy. If they don't feel up to it, you can be supportive by babysitting, preparing a meal, or helping with the laundry. There may be additional practicalities to take care of, that can seem overwhelming, such as informing friends and family of the death, making arrangements for the funeral, dealing with doctors, lawyers and inheritance issues, and, in some cases, dealing with unresolved legal issues arising from the addiction, such as debt, or issues around the death from drugs itself. You can offer to help with taking care of these things by asking ,"How can I help?"

Avoid Burnout

It can be hard offering support to someone who has lost an addicted loved one or who is coping with a death from drugs. Emotions can run high, and it can be quite draining trying to help. But your loyalty is important. If you feel overwhelmed yourself, back off and take a break. Don't allow resentment to mount, and then vent to someone else about the bereaved person. If they find out, this may be more hurtful to the bereaved person than if you hadn't tried to support them in the first place. Instead, offer what help you can, to the extent that feels right, and maintain your warm feelings towards the person you are trying to help.

Accompany the Person to Difficult Events

There may be events following the death of someone with an addiction that are very hard for the bereaved person.  Offering to accompany them may help them a great deal.  As well as attending the funeral, making statements to the police or to reporters, talking to doctors, funeral directors, and lawyers, and even going to court, can be stressful events that the bereaved person is required to take part in.  Respect their wishes if they want to do these things alone, but offering to accompany the person to these difficult situations can be very supportive.

Recognize That Grief is a Process

Grief is a complex process involving several different stages, and a range of different, and often contradictory emotions.  People vary greatly in how long it takes them to recover from the death from drugs of a relative or loved one.  It is helpful to recognize that the bereaved person needs to go through this process in their own way, and in their own time.  Although you should be careful they do not sink into depression, ore develop or worsen an addiction as a maladaptive attempt to cope, allowing them to take a while to work through their feelings is an important part of being supportive.

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Sources

Kulber-Ross, M.D., E. On Death and Dying. New York: Schribner. 1969.

Moe, J. Understanding addiction and recovery through a child's eyes : Help, hope, and healing for the family. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications. 2007.

Orford, J., Dalton, S., Hartney, E. et al. "The Close Relatives of Untreated Heavy Drinkers: Perspectives on Heavy Drinking and its Effects." Addiction Research & Theory, 10:439-463. 2002.

Orford et al Coping with Alcohol and Drug Problems: The Experiences of Family Members in Three Contrasting Cultures. Hove: Routledge. 2005.

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