For all the warm memories and goodwill shared during the holiday season, for many it is a time of acute grief. The American opioid crisis is rightfully understood as the worst public health crisis in American history, killing over 70,000 people last year alone. Behind the statistics are the private, aching pains for loved ones lost.
As part of my research on grief in the American opioid epidemic, I attended over 30 community events, vigils and support group meetings, and interviewed 23 mothers whose children died of an opioid overdose. These experiences give me insights into how to care for those dealing with the loss of a loved one to addiction or overdose.
Be quiet and listen
For many who know someone who has lost a loved one, it can be hard to know what to say or how to respond. Conversely, for those who have lost a love one, the silence can be deafening.
If you want to be supportive, consider your relationship to the person and the deceased and find an opportunity to approach the person one-on-one. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Listen and affirm. Let the person know you are willing to lend an ear. If someone takes you up on your offer, stop what you are doing and listen. Put away your cellphone or other distractions and focus on your interaction with that person. Allow them to speak and listen, without jumping to offer advice or talk about yourself. Losing someone you love is painful. Letting people express their feelings without feeling judged or corrected can be very powerful. Simple phrases like “I hear you” offer validation.
Give the gift of time. Grief can be a very isolating experience, so spending time with others is important. One mother described being taken out to lunch by her late son’s friends on the one-year anniversary of his death. Their time together affirmed that her son was loved and missed by others and helped change an unbearable day into something else.
Names matter. One of the things that came up time and again from mothers who had lost their children to overdose was missing the sound of their child’s name. One mother explained the change from hearing and saying her son’s name many times a day to not hearing it spoken at all. For her, the difference between, “I’m sorry for the loss of your son” and “I’m sorry for the loss of Jim” is profound.
If you have a fond memory of the person, share it. Many describe the joy of hearing about their loved one from others that knew them. One mother shared a card that a former teacher had written to her after her son’s death. They had not interacted for many years, and knowing her son was remembered by this person was deeply comforting.
A person is more than their cause of death. The often tragic and dramatic nature of a fatal overdose can sometimes overshadow the person’s life. This is also true for alcohol-related deaths and suicide. It’s important to remember that each person had a life history, a sense of humor and hope for the future. An entire life is not defined merely by how it ends.
If you can’t say it, try writing. If you don’t know how to approach the person or know what to say, consider writing an email or sending a card. This form of support can open up future conversations and does not put anyone directly on the spot. It can simply say, “Thinking of you this time of year. If you ever want to talk about Jim or just get a coffee, please let me know.”
Grief is universal but takes many forms. The experience of grief varies widely. There is no time limit on grief, and for many, the grieving process is lifelong. For some, staying busy is curative, while for others, it can be hard to keep going. This is especially true during the holidays.
If you are grieving, you are not alone. There are support groups in person and online. Team Sharing is a national online and in-person platform and advocacy group for parents who have lost their children to overdose. Grief Recovery After Substance Passing (G.R.A.S.P.) provides a directory of in-person support meetings as well.