The Grief of an Overdose Death

If you thought the avoidance around death and grief in our society was bad, it is nothing compared to the avoidance of drug-related deaths.

griefOverdose deaths outnumber traffic fatalities in the US, and someone dies every 14 minutes from a drug overdose in this country- startling facts! In 2011 data came out showing that prescription medication overdose deaths outnumbered heroin and cocaine deaths combined. Overdose deaths outnumbered prostate cancer deaths and are nearing the number of breast cancer deaths.But the topic of death by drug overdose is swept under the rug.

Even as we see celebrity overdose deaths, from Anna Nicole Smith to Michael Jackson to Cory Monteith to countless others, we don’t like to face the terrifying reality that addiction can touch anyone, anywhere. We don’t want to consider that even with more money for treatment than most of us could ever imagine, people still loose this battle every day. And even when we hear the statistics, we don’t want to think about the fact that there are real people behind those statistics – real lives lost and real people grieving.

As more and more people are touched by addiction, more and more families are left with the grief of an overdose death. Yet the unique experience of grieving an overdose death still hides out in the shadows. It is veiled in guilt and shame and stigma and discomfort. And this isn’t just a social avoidance, academic research hasn’t even faced this topic. A 2011 article by Feigelman, Jordan and Gorman highlighted the astonishing lack of research in this area. They noted that despite the significant impact of overdose deaths, “an exhaustive search for entries on grief or bereavement and overdose (or drug) deaths from Med-line, Psych-Info, and the Social Science Index yielded only two research notes on the topic. Both studies were done outside the United States: one a Brazilian study (da Silva, Noto, & Formigoni, 2007), and the other a British study (Guy, 2004).” Sadly, that is not enough study and research on the subject.

Today we are talking about overdose grief –partially inspired by International Overdose Awareness Day, and partially inspired by the research of Feigelman, Jordan, and Gorman, and partially seeking comments from all of you who have experienced overdose deaths and found ways to cope. We face unique challenges from drug-related deaths.

The Death Feels Avoidable

Much like suicide grief, there is a complexity in overdose deaths in that people feel like the death was somehow preventable. This can created an array of complicated emotions, many of which can be linked back to this feeling or belief. Many of the feelings below, including guilt, shame, blame, fear, and isolation all in some way can be correlated back to this.


Though guilt can be a component of grief from many types of losses, overdose deaths can present many different types of guilt.

Friends and family may feel guilt that they could have, or should have, done something to prevent the loss.
Guilt that the family member suffered from addiction (i.e. a parent, spouse, etc feeling it is their fault the person who died developed an addiction)
Guilt if the death brings a sense of relief after years of addiction impacting family and friends.
Obsession over actions done/not done to support the person who died.


There is often a question of the difference between guilt and shame, but it is important to understand the distinction as these can impact someone grieving an overdose death. There are many different ways you will see guilt and shame defined and contrasted against each other. Here we mean this distinction as a contrast between a personal experience vs a relational experience. Guilt is something we feel within ourselves, based on our own perception that we could or should have done in a certain situation. Shame is something we feel based on our perception that others think we could or should have done something differently. In the case of overdose death, shame can manifest in various ways.

Shame that the family member suffered from addiction (i.e. a parent believing others think it was their fault or they were a bad parent for having a child who suffers from addiction)
Shame for enabling the person who died.
Shame for not doing enough to “help” the person who died.
Shame for the person who died (feeling that others blame that person for their addiction and/or death, and hence are less worthy of mourning)

Please keep in mind that there is another definition/distinction you will often hear between guilt and shame – one that is actually common in substance abuse and recovery. In this definition people say that guilt is the idea that one did something bad, whereas shame is the belief that one is bad. So, guilt is a feeling about an action and shame is a feeling about the self.

Though that is a very important distinction to make, it is not the way we are talking about shame here. My experience with the word shame, and with the grief experience that accompanies it, is shame in the relational sense – shame that others are judging us or our loved one.


Though there is little research around the grief experience of survivors of overdose deaths, the study by Feigelman, Jordan and Gorman (2011) found a greater incidence of blame among and between parents of children who died of drug related deaths (as well as those who had children die by suicide). This is both self-blame, as well as blame between friends and family members. Though this is the first US research to officially document this, it seems pretty darn intuitive if you have lost anyone to overdose or known people who have. Some common feelings that arise around blame are:

Blame toward those who used drugs/alcohol with the person who died.
Self-blame for the person developing an addiction.
Self-blame for the person’s death.
Blame toward the person who died for their own death.
Blame toward family members for not preventing the death.
Obsession over actions done/not done to support the person who died.

In the Feigelman et al (2011) study, a tally of blame comments made to parents showed that 97%+ of blame comments were made in cases of suicide and overdose deaths, in contrast to 2-3% in cases of accidental deaths and 0% in cases of natural deaths. 64% of these comments were blame toward the child who died, with the remaining 36% of the comments blaming the parent. Nearly 50% of parents who lost a child to overdose or suicide reported blame comments being made by one or more of their significant others. It is easier and easier to understand why people don’t speak up about addiction and overdose deaths.

Stigma and Isolation

Though we know addiction touches hundreds of thousands of families each year, the family and friends of those experiencing addiction often suffer in silence due to the feelings of stigma, guilt and shame. When someone dies from overdose this isolation often continues from reluctance to talk about the addiction. This can result in:

Difficulty accepting the circumstances of the death (denial about drug involvement).
Reluctance to openly discuss the cause of death.
Reluctance to participate in support groups or counseling.
Hesitance to seek support from friends and family members.

In the same Feigelman et al (2011) study, 50% of parents who lost a child to suicide or overdose deaths did not find the support that they expected from their significant others, contributing to feelings of isolation. People say stupid things to us all the time as grievers. Overdose deaths can bring out some of those especially terrible comments that drive us further into isolation. People make us feel this death is not as worthy of grief and mourning as other deaths, which throws it in the complicated category of disenfranchised grief.

Fear and Anxiety

Addiction is a devastating disease that is difficult to imagine if you have not experienced it within your family, friends, or community. It turns family members into strangers. It pins friends and family against one another. It devastates communities. Once someone has lost a family member to addiction anxieties can arise (or increase) and become consuming:

Fear that other family members will start abusing substances.
Fear that others who are already using substances will also overdose.
Fear that others who are in recovery will relapse.

This article was written by Litsa Williams of What’s Your Grief. Visit her site, where you can read more articles about coping with grief. Many thanks and much respect to Litsa.

June 29, 2015


30 responses to “The Grief of an Overdose Death”

  1. Molly P says:

    Excellent, very welcome article and much needed. Thank you.

  2. Jane says:

    I was charged with 2nd degree murder and two other drug charges after I found my son in his room and could not save him. Charges were eventually dropped except one because I gave him $50. But before dropped I was plastered all over the front page of our newspaper. Spent three weeks in jail. This all started just a week and a half after my son died. The whole time I was in jail he still had not been cremated because of the law keep ordering autopsy. Quentin passed on 10/20/2011 and was finally cremated 11/21/2011 the same day I got out of jail. I keep isolated don’t want to work or anything. I hate heiron. I am still on probation.

    • Debbie says:

      Wow how sad. It broke my heart to read this. I am hoping there is some kind of support group for you. We have one in NH. Dealing with the loss of you son and the being tossed in jail. When what you truly need was a hug and love. I don’t know if this is appropriate but here is my phone number if you just need to talk 603 785 1120. I’m hoping you will see my post. Thinking of you Debbie

    • Sheryl says:

      Dear Jane. So sorry for your loss of your son. Tradgety occurs in all families everywhere. You are not alone. My family has had two suicides, and my son uses heroin. You are not to blame. We all have free will. Your son was allowed to make his own choices. You did not choose this for him. You are alive. God gave you life as a gift-use your life and give God the Glory in all things-including the death of your son. Pick yourself up and continue the race! Become an advocate teaching kids/adults and share your story!

    • Elizabeth Lawley says:

      I am so sorry for what you have had to endure.

    • Nicole says:

      I am so sorry for your loss…. I can imagine your grief , because I also lost my daughter to addiction, but I cannot imagine going through criminal charges while experiencing your enormous and complicated grief…. We all give our children money … I don’t get it… Do your do me asking if you live in U.S. And if so which state….. But, either way, hold your head high, get back to living, it is not your fault, your son was sick… And I’m so sorry! ❤️

  3. Anna says:

    Wow! Thank you so much for this article! It really helped to validate my grief & emotions of guilt & shame! Anyone who’s ever lost a loved one to overdose could greatly benefit from reading this!

    • Nicole says:

      I agree… It also was validating for me…. And I think everyone should read this article, not only the bereaved…

  4. lvcntry says:

    Very spot on article. Helped me validate my feelings as well. As to the person that went to jail – unimaginable! So very sorry for you.

  5. Cindy Blom says:

    Thanks for publishing this article. Our son Erik died on May 1, 2014. We decided to be very public about how he died. But even in that choice we are in a world that sees our story as too much to handle. People tell me all the time “you are my living nightmare”. So when families are healthy in dealing with death by overdose, our society is VERY limited in their ability to understand and offer support. A double whammy for the families. We then become the ones who are crumbling under the grief, the ones who are advocates for those families who are current in the battle to save their kids lives, and the educators for those who are clueless about what we are all going through. We go to work each day. We show up in our lives. We are so very tired. We have recent memory of the legal battles our loved one was going through. The trauma that surrounds the days before they left us is very real. We are in our second year of grief. Some days when asked how we are I answer “Well I am not sure we are going to make it without losing a limb.” Families need help. Each family member desperately needs counseling to heal from the trauma. Once again thanks for your article. Please continue to research and study.

  6. Elizabeth Lawley says:

    I lost my son at 25 in May. The pain is unbearable but this article helped to show I am not alone. We need to change the stigma of addiction, how insurances pay for rehabilitation (90 days instead of the prescribed 30), and a 72 hour hold on those suffering a nonfatal overdose to get treatment. In my son’s honor, Derik’s Jedi Project is working on breaking the stigma of addiction, thus helping parents ease their feeling of guilt, isolation, and shame. My husband and I were good parents. We tried everything to help our son, yet the guilt is still there. Funny isn’t it? I wrote an article about losing a son it addiction and how I am going to handle the questions when I go back to work.

  7. Elizabeth Lawley says:

    I lost my son at 25 in May. The pain is unbearable but this article helped to show I am not alone. We need to change the stigma of addiction, how insurances pay for rehabilitation (90 days instead of the prescribed 30), and a 72 hour hold on those suffering a nonfatal overdose to get treatment. In my son’s honor, Derik’s Jedi Project is working on breaking the stigma of addiction, thus helping parents ease their feeling of guilt, isolation, and shame.

  8. Nicole says:

    My daughter Emily Rose Orlando, died at the age of 19, due to a long history of ED and a short history of addiction…. OxyContin and morph one took her life on May 10,2010….this article is a very real puctirial of what transpires with friends and family and self after losing a loved one, especially a child , to addiction…. The stigma attached to mental illness can ruin lives….five years later, and we are still struggling to make it through, leaving a trail of broken relationships behind us…. Broken-hearted ❤️

    • Brenda McCoy says:

      I’m so sorry… You know when I lost my son, initially it felt like a complete freefall – seemingly each day losing more control to the overwhelming guilt and sorrow. I didn’t completely realize it at the time, but the pain and nagging questions were actually consuming me. There was little room for, or focus on, anything else in my life – unfortunately including my daughter. In fact, it was a comment from her about having lost her mother that went a long ways towards finally waking me up and telling me… The way I was living wasn’t good enough anymore. I had to find some way to begin to take back my life. Well, all I can tell you is… Hang in there and don’t listen to any of the noise out there telling you things can’t be changed – because I stand as living proof that there’s a way to completely turn things around…Brenda McCoy

  9. carol roane says:

    My Nikki died of a prescription drug overdose 2-27-2012. The article is right on target. It is living a rollercoaster of emotions.

  10. Anthony says:

    this article is spot on. I am a former addict in recovery. I’ve lost over 20 people in the past 3 years and every one gets harder than the last. I’m an advocate for spreading the knowledge of the disease of addiction.

  11. Marilee says:

    Great article. Thank you for posting this. I wanted to let parents, spouses, siblings of those lost to overdose know that there is a (closed = private) FB page called Grasp which stand for Grief Recovery After A Substance Passing. It is comprised of people from all walks of life who have suffered this loss. GRASP is the place where none of us want to be but where support can be given and received from people who know too well this hard path we walk both before and after. Oh and there are also in-person Chapter groups in many areas. Peace to us all.

  12. Heather says:

    Thank you for the article however, not all drug deaths are down to addiction. My daughter took a so called ‘party drug’ mcat and had a huge reaction to it. We lost her in April 2012. The stigma and guilt are always there

  13. Madeleine says:

    thank you for your heartfelt comment Brenda

    • Larry Curtis says:

      This is an excellant article. While I am a parent of two sons in long term recovery today, I have had the opportunity to interview several parents who have lost their son or daughter. Our experience in the emotional roller coaster of addiction lead us to begin a drug education and awareness program called a “Deadly Silence”, both in community access television and radio. We have come to understand that no parent or love one should experience the roller coaster ride of addiction and not understand the many resources available to them. Education is the way to combating this battle of addiction and the more of us who step forward and share our experiences the quicker we will be able win the battles. It all begins with one discussion and the flood gates will open as everyone knows of a family member, friend, co worker and neighbor who is dealing with this addiction. God bless those families who have lost a love one and can continue to share with us your story of grief and strength.

  14. Crystal says:

    This article just helped me realize everything we are feeling is normal. My brother in law about a month ago lost his battle with addiction. Everyday since I have just been lost, my emotions have gone all other the place from sad, angry, guilt, blame. When I am asked how he passed, I am brutally honest. I don’t care about the stigma that comes from society. I want people to hear our story and open their eyes. Addiction is a disease and there needs to be more help and education to everyone.

  15. Kim says:

    The article was wonderfully written and hit on many true points. I lost my boyfriend of 12 years to his addiction 9/1/2014. He was 55 years old. I mention his age because I belong to a different club. I could never fathom the loss of a child and the feelings that go with it. But trust me. The feelings are different with a significant other. What makes it even harder is his age. 55. “He should have known better”. “Didn’t you expect this?” “Why didn’t you leave him and avoid this pain” “At least your still young. I hope you don’t do this again”. There is an amazing support group for people who have lost loved ones from substance abuse. I went to the meetings. Twice. They were filled with parents. Sad. I sat there thinking “you have someone to go home to.” “You have someone to hold when it gets rough”. I don’t. He’s dead. Whole different feeling. Whole different grief. The older addict is the forgotten addict. Almost all articles, stories, and yes support groups are about younger addicts. People think of addicts as being teens to early thirties. Not 55. “He should have known better”. The truth is; he did. But it still killed him.

  16. Excellent article. The shame, stigma, guilt and sorrow that surrounds a death due to substance abuse is incredible. There is an organization I belong to called GRASP – Grief Recovery after a Substance Passing. It’s a free support group on Facebook and it also has Chapter Groups around the country (also free). It really can be a comfort to be able to share with people who’ve experienced the same struggles both before and after having a loved one, especially a child, pass. I recommend it to everyone.

  17. Oliver Neubert says:

    The following resource from the University of Bath is helpful in dealing with bereavement by substance abuse :

  18. Amy says:

    When I have energy …
    There are barriers that need tearing down and issues to tackle.
    Thank You for reading about my daughter.

  19. Amy says:

    Hagenbaugh, Alyssa
    Jun 3, 2016

    Alyssa Hagenbaugh

    MADISON – Alyssa Hagenbaugh, age 25, died May 29, 2016, from an accidental drug overdose. She was born Feb. 12, 1991, daughter of Amy Campbell Andrew and Daniel Hagenbaugh.

    Alyssa was a kind, sweet, and beautiful girl, who had the potential for greatness. She loved her mother, sister, and friends very much. She enjoyed hula hooping, music, the ocean, her two dogs, and making people laugh. Her smile and goofy personality could light up a room, but will no longer because she was taken from us after a long struggle with substance abuse.

    Alyssa grew up near Richland Center and Blue River, was a good student and had many big dreams. She had a lifelong battle with depression, was a domestic violence victim, and had a difficult time seeing what everyone else did, a beautiful spirit and a kind heart. Alyssa turned to drugs to make herself feel better and accepted. Alyssa attempted treatment for her addictions, but in the end she could not overcome them.

    Heroin addiction is a growing epidemic and roughly 78 people die every day die from accidental drug overdose. We are losing too many loved ones to this terrible drug and disease. There must be more education, awareness, and options for our children and those who struggle with addiction. Domestic violence also causes too much suffering and takes too many lives. We can educate ourselves and communities, learn the signs of abuse, and provide support for those who suffer.

    Survivors include, her mother, Amy Campbell Andrew; a stepfather, Robert Andrew; a sister, Michelle Hagenbaugh; an aunt, Bonnie Downs; an uncle, James Campbell; and a great-aunt, Bernice Jensen. Alyssa also leaves behind many loving cousins and friends.

    She was preceded in death by her father, Daniel Hagenbaugh, and grandparents, James and Gretchen Campbell, and Clifford and Eupha Hagenbaugh.

  20. Sarah Ward says:

    A well written article with much needed information. Thank you!

  21. Donna Davis says:

    I lost my daughter to a heroin overdose on Feb. 12, 2016. I have been running from reality after a month of this happening. The first month I spent in isolation blaming myself. I then went to as many places as I could to keep from staying at home and in community. I don’t know of anyone else that has overdosed that lives in this small rural community. Everything you said in the article is the truth. i felt everyone of those feelings. I tried to commit suicide once but that failed and ended up in hospital for a week. I was better after leaving hospital but when returned home it all started back over again. How do you ever get over loosing a child to an overdose?

  22. Amy Buchanan says:

    I am the mother of a 22 year old son who lost his life on 2/1/16.This by far is the worst thing I have ever had to go thru,We need to Band together to Educate as many children as possible that this Real and that Death is the out come.Parents need to not be embarrassed if they have child with the Disease of Addiction.Stop the Stigma,Overdose Happens

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