Heroin usage and heroin overdoses have become an epidemic on Long Island. Long Island has even been called the “Heroin Highway”. In Nassau County alone there were more than 821 non-fatal heroin and opiate overdoses in 2013, according to the Long Island Herald, of which 119 were fatal. And these numbers have only been increasing.
Law enforcement’s recent crackdown on black market opiate painkillers has meant that heroin has filled in for these dangerous substances.
As New York state Senator John Martins says, the lack of painkillers means that the need is “being filled by heroin, one of the world’s most dangerously addictive drugs. When you add the fact that this stuff is readily available and cheaper than a pack of cigarettes, it spells disaster.”
Of course, knowing that heroin overdoses have increased doesn’t diminish the pain and anguish of grief. As anyone in the situation of having lost a loved one to an overdose knows, the only thing that is more heart-breaking than loving someone who is heroin-addicted is losing them through a heroin overdose.
- The helplessness, hopelessness, anger, resentment, fear and devastation that are experienced when someone we care about uses heroin is magnified tenfold when they die from an overdose.
- And, although most family members and friends know on some level that overdose is possible, it is still shocking and hard to believe when it actually happens.
When we are confronted with the reality of an overdose and lose a loved one – whether it is a relative, a friend, or a child– the grief is complicated.
A variety of emotions may be experienced all at once, or even within an hour’s time. A death from an overdose is unique, though. As Drs. Feigelman and Gorman, authors of a recent study on overdose grief reveal, “greater grief and mental health difficulties (arise) compared to accidental and natural cause deaths”.
Guilt and shame:
One of the most common reactions to losing a loved one to an overdose is the enormous sense of guilt. The guilt around “did I do enough, did I do too much (in terms of enabling), was there something I hadn’t thought about?” is often overwhelming.
We feel as if we ought to have intervened earlier, or reached out more often, or had “the drug talk” more often. We get stuck in the “coulda / woulda / shoulda’s”, and this can be debilitating. Shame, too, can also be very strong. We might feel that others are thinking that we “should have” done something differently, and this can be just as emotionally damaging.
Although on the surface this may not seem to make sense, after losing a loved one, people often operate with a small measure of denial. It is this denial that allows us to go through our everyday lives and function without completely falling apart.
Feeling angry at one’s self, at the loved one who has overdosed, or at God / the universe is natural. Often the anger at the person who overdosed is the more difficult emotion to allow. For instance, we think, “how can I be angry at him or her, when I know it is a disease?” Or, “how can I be angry when they are gone?”
In addition, feeling angry at the person for not getting help or not “trying hard enough” to get clean is very common. Anger about leaving us with this profound grief and loss is very natural, too. Yet some feel that this is selfish. It is not.
The grief around losing someone who has overdosed is often considered a complicated grief, in part because there was already a sense of loss experienced when the person was still alive and using.
We might have already grieved for the person that he or she was before the drug usage, and have already lost the person she used to be. However, death will most certainly reawaken any of our old grief and invite in new emotions and pain.
Dealing with the grief of a loved one:
As with any type of grief, it is most important to allow whatever feelings to emerge. Often, we are not even aware that we are angry or in pain, especially if that anger or pain is directed towards our deceased loved one. Instead, we might mask our emotions with shopping, eating, or television.
But by burying the pain, we may prolong our grieving. There is no easy way around grief, other than to allow for each emotion. Below are some simple steps we can take to acknowledge our feelings.
Methods for discovering our emotions:
Write a letter: write a letter to your loved one, detailing all of the things that you loved about them. And then, pour out your other emotions, the ones that you have perhaps not said to anyone else: perhaps it is your anger at them for leaving you, for not getting help, or for not listening to your words. Perhaps it is your own guilt. Whatever it is, write it all down. And then, burn the letter.
Allowing and releasing:
When you do recognize that you are in pain, or are feeling sad or guilty or anxious, acknowledge that emotion. Perhaps even speak it out loud: “Hello, anger, I see you.” There is no need to ask the emotion to leave you or to go away, only to see that it is there.
This simple act of mindfulness has been used by sages throughout the ages as a way to bring clarity to our minds. If, however, the feeling seems overwhelming, it is helpful to release it through movement. Shaking your body rigorously, using a punching bag or exercise. This allows the feelings to be released and not stuck in our bodies.
Surround yourself with support:
Sometimes, even words of comfort can feel hurtful or meaningless. Regardless of where you are on your journey, surround yourself with people who understand. This might be a support group, or simply close family or friends.
Ask for help:
Grief, especially in cases where a loved one has not been allowed to experience a full life, can be overwhelming. Speaking with a licensed psychotherapist can be an incredibly comforting experience.
At Nassau Guidance and Counseling, we have many years of experience with grief counseling, and also have helped many clients who have lost loved ones through drug overdoses. We can help you to find a way through the incredible sadness of grief.