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What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Lost an Addicted Relative or Loved One

Unsupportive Remarks That Hurt Rather Than Help During Bereavement

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Updated May 06, 2014

Sooner or later, the families and friends of people with addictions are faced with the person's death.  Losing a relative or someone close is always hard, but it is often harder and more complicated when the person had an addiction.  Relatives and friends of the addicted person who died need the support of those around them, and while there is a lot you can say and do that will help, often people say the wrong thing, even when they mean well. 

Here are ten things you should avoid saying to someone who has lost a relative or loved one with an addiction.

Don't Criticize the Griever

This may seem obvious, yet so often, people criticize the person who was left behind directly or indirectly.  A direct criticism would be something like, "You should have got him to stop using drugs."  This shows a lack of awareness that overcoming an addiction is not something that can be forced on someone, and family members and friends are often at a loss to know how to help.  An indirect criticism implies that the griever got it wrong, for example, by saying, "You never did know how to deal with his addiction, did you?"  While this may be true, in this example, it is hurtful to emphasize the relative or loved one's powerlessness at the time when they are feeling least able to control what has happened.

Don't Criticize the Addict

There are many reasons you might feel tempted to criticize the addicted person who has died.  You may feel it is supportive, for example, to point out that the person who has died was abusive to the person left behind, and that they will not have to put up with that abuse any longer.  However, the grieving person is probably feeling overwhelmed with many contradictory feelings, and has to make peace with the relationship that is now over.  Being reminded that the addicted person was cruel, thoughtless, or unable to deal with their own problems is unnecessary, in bad taste, and hurtful to the person left behind.

Don't Attribute Blame

Blame is something many of us are tempted to do, but it is generally a self-defeating process.  Not only does it bring a negative tone to interactions, it also fails to take into account many circumstances that are beyond anyone's control, and it interferes with the grieving person moving through their own process of grief.  Avoid blaming the griever, the addicted person who has died, the addicted person's friends, school, employer, abusers, drug dealers, loan sharks, the government or anyone else that you feel the responsibility for the addicted person's death lies with.  Grieving is a time to extend compassion to others, and even if you feel people were at fault, restrain yourself from expressing this to the grieving person left behind.

Don't Tell The Griever What They "Must" or "Should" Feel or Do

A lot is expected of people whose relatives have died -- to arrange and attend a funeral, to play host to family and friends, to put the dead person's affairs in order, to express only sadness about the loss of the relative, and to recover quickly.  Given the circumstances, it is unreasonable to expect this of the family and friends of someone with an addiction.  Make no assumptions that the person must be feeling either positive or negative emotions about losing a relative or loved one -- there may have been exploitation, abuse, overdoses, or suicide attempts the relative had to cope with, as well as shared experiences, love, intimacy, and attempts to get help.  Allow them the privacy and space to process their grief in their own way.

Don't Tell the Griever They Should Be Happy

Even if you think the addicted person treated your grieving friend horribly, they are likely to be experiencing a variety of different emotions.  It is natural to go through a range of emotions after the death of someone close, including anger and sadness.  It is also unlikely that their troubles are over, as there may be financial and other problems that are unresolved.  And while an optimistic outlook can be motivating, it is important that the grieving person does not go into denial about their feelings about all that happened when the addicted person was alive, just because the person has gone.  In addition, the grieving person may miss having a partner, parent, sibling, child or friend, roles which may never be filled by someone else.

Don't Tell the Griever They Should "Be Over" or "Get Over" Abuse

"Get over it!" "Quit whining, he's dead now!" "You should be over it by now!"

These are all hurtful statements that have been said directly to victims of abuse.  The death of the abuser does not make the pain go away.  Recovery from abuse can take time, sometimes years.  Although you may feel that an abused relative or loved one is wallowing in their pain, the reality is, they may be suffering from PTSD.  Telling them to snap out of it will just hurt and alienate them further. 

If you find this hard to understand, at least hold off on expressing an opinion.

Don't Talk About God's Will

Although some people have a strong religious faith, many people whose lives are affected by addiction are uncomfortable with traditional ideas of spirituality.  Saying that the death of a person with an addiction was God's will has the unfortunate implication that a higher power intended for the addicted person and/or their relative or loved one to go through the misery that can be part of an addiction, perhaps as a punishment for wrongdoing.  It also implies that a belief in God may spare them further pain, which is not necessarily the case.  Keep your religious opinions to yourself during this time of grief, even if you share the same religious beliefs as the person left behind -- unless, of course, they ask your opinion on the matter.   

Don't Give Unsolicited Advice

If the grieving person asks you for advice about a subject you have knowledge of, go ahead and give it.  But unsolicited advice -- who they should contact, what they should do, how to dispose of the dead person's belongings etc., should not be offered.  Advice can be confusing and contradictory, and can get in the way of the person figuring out for themselves what to do.  It also puts yet more pressure on someone who is quite likely feeling overwhelmed as it is.  And if your advice turns out to be incorrect, it can cause problems in your relationship with them.  A better strategy is to offer to be there as someone to talk to and help as needed, and then to provide the help requested if asked.

Don't Offer the Person Alcohol or Drugs

You may believe that the person left behind did not have a problem with alcohol or drugs, but it is possible that they, too, have problems with addictive behaviors.  They may also try to numb out their feelings of grief with alcohol or drugs if they are available, or to wallow in memories of the person they have lost by doing what they did.  Generally, alcohol and drugs are ineffective ways of managing stress, and are counterproductive to the process of working through feelings.  Instead, invite the person to participate in another activity, or invite them to dinner, but avoid serving alcohol.

Don't Say Nothing At All

"I didn't know what to say so I didn't get in touch."  So often, this is the excuse given by family and friends of someone who has lost someone with an addiction.  And the grieving relative or loved on is faced with the stony silence of the phone never ringing and the only mail to hit the mat being bills.  Sure, it is embarrassing and awkward to talk about.  But it is a lot less painful for the person left behind knowing that there are people around to share the process of letting go, than to face what seems like abandonment by everyone they know.  So pick up the phone, write a letter or a card, send some flowers, express your sympathy, and ask what they would like you to do.  Then, if it isn't unreasonable, do it.

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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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