ThinkstockPhotos-86537496Many Americans struggle with drug addiction. It can affect anyone, anyplace, anytime. For some, it’s a long, grueling battle that consumes and eventually claims their lives.

Drug overdose deaths have spiked in the U.S. in recent years, particularly among young white adults. The New York Times reported that, “In 2014, the overdose death rate for whites ages 25 to 34 was five times its level in 1999, and the rate for 35- to 44-year-old whites tripled during that period. The numbers cover both illegal and prescription drugs.”

In New Jersey, Vermont, Florida and other states, heroin and prescription opioid abuse and deaths have surged to a major high. “The number of heroin-related deaths in Florida more than doubled in 2014 over the previous year, according to an annual report issued by the Florida Medical Examiner’s Commission,” reported The Tampa Bay Tribune.

Government leaders around the country are advocating for increased prevention and treatment services to combat this epidemic. In the aftermath of the many drug-related deaths, help is needed for families. How do those left behind deal with the pain of such a traumatic loss?

Complicated Grief

Senior Counselor Kathy Quance

Senior Counselor Kathy Quance

Grieving can become extremely trying when someone you love dies to an overdose. “Sometimes it’s a suicide and sometimes accidental. People do well when there are facts and a story. Having a story is part of our ability to process it, make it real and move forward. It can become complicated to cope when there are pieces missing,” said Kathy Quance, M.S., C.C.L.S., Empath Health Community Counseling’s senior counselor.

A loved one’s history of chronic drug abuse can further complicate grief. “Another factor is if the person struggled with drugs for a long time. It affects every part of that person’s life. Survivors may feel relief and guilt. They may think, ‘I should have done more.’ People need the ability to think about the what-ifs.,” explains Quance.

Shame and other emotions can also arise and cause complications. “We don’t do grief well in the U.S. When the shame and drug abuse factors are thrown in it makes it isolating and hard for people. So many people who have lost someone to an overdose feel a sense of shame. They may also feel a vibe that others think, ‘Why didn’t they do something for that person?’ or ‘That person deserved it.,’” Quance said.

A survivor’s own struggle with drug addiction can add more difficulty. “Sometimes it has been prevalent in the family and it’s normal for that family, which makes it tricky. When survivors are recovering addicts and dealing with a new loss it may seem so much easier to use rather than to face it. If it’s a loss that happened long ago it can feel fresh again. Grief catches up to you. You can’t go over, under or around it, you have to go through it,” she said.

Nighttime can become another challenge. “Nights are so long and huge for grieving people. Nights can be difficult for someone who’s vulnerable to drugs,” she said.

Support for Sudden, Traumatic Loss

Anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one to an overdose may come for one-on-one counseling or sudden, traumatic loss groups at our community service centers in Palm Harbor, Clearwater and St. Petersburg.

ThinkstockPhotos-76764102Timing is critical when seeking help, says Quance. “With some deaths that are viewed as more shameful in society, those survivors tend to want to get into groups right away. It’s validating and makes them feel not alone but they may still be raw. You can’t rush it; you have to express it as you’re able to. Some don’t want to go to groups at all. Not everyone needs professional help to grieve. Some might have healthy support systems and outlets.”

Many in our services have been younger, says Quance. “The majority of people who come to this office is in their mid to late-20’s. I think there are others out there who could use help but don’t reach out. Having an outside, objective source can be helpful for some people.”

Several interventions can be used to bring healing. “It’s really important for people to be able to tell their stories in whatever ways they need to so they can feel safe. We work to match the right intervention with the right person. Certain people are receptive to journaling while some may want to start projects at home to feel in control. Things you once were able to do easily may now feel impossible when you’re grieving. I encourage people to make a list so they can see and check off their accomplishments,” Quance said.

ThinkstockPhotos-85449142Ceremonies can also bring comfort, Quance added. “It’s important to have some sense of ceremony. I find it’s so therapeutic for people. It may be small or big scale, such as recognizing a wedding anniversary or birthday. A ceremony doesn’t have to involve a church, agenda or music. It may be a ritual like cooking your loved one’s favorite dinner and bringing it to the table.”

How You Can Help

It’s not easy to know what to say to a friend, coworker or family member who has experienced such a significant loss. One of the best things you can do is to be non-judgmental.

“These people are grieving someone they loved and it’s good not to treat their loss as different. When it’s interpreted as a judgment it creates a stigma, pulls people away and makes them feel like their loss isn’t worthy. It’s absolutely worthy,” she said.

Additional Resources

For more information or support with drug addiction, visit:

• The Narcotics Overdose Prevention & Education (NOPE) Task Force
Operation PAR, Inc.
• Pinellas 24-hour suicide hotline

Support & Remembrance

For more information or to sign up for Empath Health Community Counseling services, call 727-523-3451.

You are also invited to remember your loved one at our Suncoast Hospice Community Memorial Services March 3 and March 17, 2016. For details, visit our online calendar.