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Grieving Stigmatized Losses - A Personal Reflection on Overdose

grief overdose stigmatized losses series Mar 29, 2022
Person unable to stand up due to strong emotions.

TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of overdose, suicide, and the associated grief. 

NOTE: This is part of our new series, Grieving Stigmatized Losses that explores stigmatized grief, such as from suicide or overdose losses. Other topics that will be covered include (but are not limited to): supporting someone who is grieving a stigmatized death, supporting someone with suicidal ideation, looking at how much our words truly matter, and celebrity deaths. This series was inspired by our work with our partner BraveMaker whose film, “Last Chance Charlene,” is being featured in the Cinequest Film Festival from April 1st - 17, 2022. We will have blogs with reflections from that incredible and powerful film as well as a companion workbook to help process the powerful topics covered. 

By: Kim English Hanlon

While we firmly hold that one should avoid comparing losses and that all grief is valid, we fully appreciate that some loss types can be particularly complicated and emotionally intense. Two examples are losing someone to suicide or to a drug overdose. Unfortunately, the United States is experiencing an epidemic of both, even if the number of suicide deaths has declined in the past two years.

We hope this blog series will provide you with some resources and insights if you are grieving such losses or know others that are. If you are not, please still read on - you likely know someone who is (for example - 85% of people know someone who has died by suicide!), and what we share will provide a valuable understanding that will help you be a better support person.

There are a few reasons healing grief by suicide or overdose death can be complicated. For one, while grief, in general, is a taboo topic, these death types can be so stigmatized that grievers may further hesitate to talk about it. Moreover, we tend to feel stuck in grief when we have unresolved feelings such as regrets, unmet hopes, or other incomplete feelings we never got to express. In many situations of suicide or overdose, there is heightened unresolved grief with intense feelings of “what if’s” or shame or heartbrokenness.

There can also be a mix of feelings, leaving one confused or ashamed by the conflicting feelings which can range from sadness to anger to confusion to guilt.

A major reason we, Ilana and I, each decided to become Grief Specialists is that we wanted people to know there is hope after loss, and that grief does not have to be as isolating as it unfortunately is for most.

Isolation is common in grievers because one quickly realizes that others are not equipped to support them in grief - they either cannot relate to the intense pain, or they do not know what to say. This can make it difficult to heal one’s grief, especially if the loss type is stigmatized.

This was my experience when my brother died of a drug overdose.  For years, I was hesitant to share his cause of death with most people as I did not want him to be judged or for assumptions to be made about him just because of how he died. I did not want how he died to define him. (There is a separate blog here about my wish for Steven’s Legacy.)

It is hard to not have how one died to overshadow our grief and our ability to move through grief to a place of healing and renewed hope.

To draw again from my own experience, for two years (until I finally found Grief Recovery), I was unable to think about my brother without reliving and vividly picturing his death and final weeks. I tormented myself - how the last words he said to me in person were, “I am so overwhelmed,” and berating myself for not realizing the depth of his struggles earlier. 

It was in finding Grief Recovery that I was able to identify and give voice to this heartache and intense pain. I vividly remember how the weight of my grief shifted and lightened each week as my grief was witnessed by my lovely Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®. My relationship with my brother was brought into focus - not just the regrets and grief, but the love and gratitude for my time with him. I was finally able to hold happy memories of him, and also hope for my future. I also felt more able to share about my brother with others - which was a gift as I so wanted to have him live on in his stories and my love. 

We wish this for you. Living with unresolved grief is a public health crisis, as the stress of heartbreak and of handling affairs after death can strain one’s mental and physical health. Our sense of security can be shaken following a traumatic loss, and the ripple effects of feeling unsafe or anxious about the future can cause or exacerbate illnesses.

We wish you peace.

We wish you hope in moving through grief and carrying it forward without it feeling like an ever-present suffocating weight.

Your broken heart deserves just as much care as a broken arm would. Seeking support *honors* your grief. 

You do not have to suffer - support is available!

Schedule a complimentary consultation with us and/or refer to the resources below. 

Please contact us for additional resources, if needed ([email protected]).

If it is an emergency, please contact 911 immediately.