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A couple comforting each other in grief
September 21, 2018

How Grief Support Needs Are Greater Than Ever for Families in Runaway Overdose Epidemic

A couple comforting each other in griefDrug overdoses, the vast majority of which are opiate-related, are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. It’s a runaway epidemic that more often than not is measured in terms of the number of lives it cuts short each year. (In the year 2017 alone, that figure exceeded the total number of American lives lost in the entire Vietnam War, continuing the same upward trend from 2016, when it was first reported by CBS News.)

One Overlooked Factor – The Explosion in Grief Support Groups

There is one factor that can often go overlooked, however, in analyses of overdose-related devastation in the U.S.: the exploding need for grief support among hard-hit families. In recent years, grief support groups for families who have lost loved ones to overdose have been popping up at unprecedented rates in communities across America. Among them:

  • Salem, Massachusetts
  • Madison, Wisconsin
  • Frederick, Maryland
  • Fox Valley, Illinois
  • Knoxville, TN
  • Lima, OH

The list goes on, and includes our own vicinity of Juno Beach, Florida, where Beach House Center for Recovery is hosting monthly meetings for families coping with overdose, in order to help support groups like Project C4OPE respond to the growing need among families in Palm Beach County alone (where more than 600 people died from overdose in 2017).

Director of Education for the Hanley Foundation Barbara Shafer facilitates Project C4OPE. The program is “for families who share the experience of a loved one who has died of an opioid overdose, survived an overdose, or are at high risk for overdose”— but Shafer said anywhere between one-third to one-half of participants in the group are family members who have lost a loved one to overdose.

“I’ve seen more groups developing in recent years,” she added. “There’s been a need [for grief support] and I think groups are absolutely growing … More local chapters are popping up that weren’t there five years ago.”

Why the Loss of a Loved One to Drug Overdose Is Devastating

Grief in the wake of a loved one’s overdose is often complicated by a host of emotions. Shame, stigma, guilt, anger, blame, shock and isolation can often compound the normal feelings of sadness and grief over a loved one’s death.

Even family members who have braced themselves for a possible overdose are still not prepared for the suddenness of the event when it happens. Still others may not have fully grasped the seriousness of their loved one’s addiction, and are thus more apt to blame themselves for not seeing the danger signs before it was too late. (A heartbreaking case in point: the wife who only came to understand the full extent of her late husband’s addiction via a diary chronicling his struggles, which she inherited after he died.) Often parents who have lost a child to overdose are especially vulnerable to post mortem expressions of guilt, regret and self-blame.

The stigma of addiction only adds more weight to an already heavy burden of grief, making it that much harder for bereft family members (who fear being judged or marginalized) to open up to others about their experience of heartbreak and loss. In these circumstances, the temptation to self-isolate can be hard to resist, at a time when love, connection and support are needed more than ever in order for families to heal and find recovery.

“The problem is stigma and helping families push through that stigma to come to these groups,” Shafer said.

Where to Find Grief Support After Losing a Loved One to Overdose

In the aftermath of losing a loved one to an overdose, you need to know that you’re not alone. Grief support groups and online communities are outlets where you can find this reassurance, by connecting with others who are also struggling to cope in the aftermath of a fatal overdose.

Here are some grief support resources to help you in your journey to recovery:

  • GRASP (“Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing”) is a national network of grief support groups, with active chapters in the U.S. and Canada and an active Facebook group by the same name. (You can find a meeting in your area using the “meeting locator” tool on the group’s website.) GRASP began in 1994 as one parent’s response to the loss of their child to drug overdose. The group describes itself as “a community of support and healing for those who have lost someone to substance use or addiction.”
  • The Compassionate Friends is a national network of grief support groups for parents and families who have lost children for any reason, including overdose.
  • Facebook communities like S.O.A.R.S. (affiliated with the New York-based “Forever in Our Hearts” grief group) and Lost to Heroin are among a number of public or private online support groups accessible via Facebook for families grieving the loss of loved ones to overdose.

For those who are local to Beach House Center for Recovery, Project C4OPE and Trustbridge Hospice’s “Lost to Addiction” grief support group are also good resources.

For related information, discover how two local moms put their grief into action.

Is your loved one struggling with addiction? Get help today.
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