When a Child Dies from a Substance Related Cause


A child’s death at any age from any cause is a profound loss. When substances such as alcohol and/or drugs (legal or illegal) are involved, additional layers of grief are often present. Whether death came after a history of substance abuse, a single encounter, or from the disease of addiction, processing this loss has its own set of complications. Substance related deaths have skyrocketed across the United States with prescription medications now the leading cause of death where substances are a factor.

The Emotional Roller Coaster
While not always the case, living with someone with substance related issues can be a long journey, an emotional roller coaster spanning many years. During this time, the ups and downs of rehabilitation efforts, relapse, guilt, shame, helplessness, and hopelessness can exhaust the family unit. When death results, it takes a while for the effects of years of struggle to come to any sense of integration or conclusion. Like a train running out of control, suddenly everything stops.

Denial and feelings of shock, guilt, anger, and depression are often a normal part of grief reactions. These are often heightened when a child dies from a substance related cause. Though hard to accept, it is not unusual to experience a sense of relief. Your child is no longer suffering. The suffering you and your family have experienced changes. No longer worrying if the substance related issue(s) will claim your child’s life, the focus shifts to coping with the loss and perceived social prejudices. What could you have done differently? Will others question your parenting skills? Where do you go from here?

You may feel anger. It may be directed at your child, those you believe may have contributed to your child’s death, those you believe failed to help your child, God, or just the world in general. You may be angry with yourself because you were unable to save your child. It’s okay to express anger, a common emotion when a child has died for any reason. Sometimes healing cannot begin until this anger is confronted and expressed. However, a healthy expression of anger does not include hurting yourself or others.

Feelings of guilt following a child’s death from any cause are normal but can be especially intense after a substance related death. This is true for parents and family, friends, classmates, and even coworkers. “If only” is a phrase you may find yourself repeating frequently. Sometimes you need to go through a feeling to get beyond it. You may need to feel guilty for a while until you begin to understand that you are ultimately not responsible for the decisions and actions of another human being, including your child. Believe in yourself. You did all you could. You are human—accept your limitations.

Some parents feel a need to ask “why?” Of course, often there are no clear answers, which can prove highly frustrating for parents and other family members who want to understand. After some time you may reach a point where you realize there are some questions about the death of your child and substance abuse or addiction that will never be answered.

Lack of energy, sleep problems, inability to concentrate, not wanting to talk with others, and the feeling there is nothing to live for are all normal reactions in bereavement. You can fight this type of depression with moderate physical activity, plenty of rest, and a good diet. Allow family and friends to help you and even take care of you. You don’t have to be strong. Maintain contact with people you value. Talking with others who have been through a similar situation may help you to cope. You may even learn it is okay to laugh and smile, though this seems impossible now. If the depression does not appear to lessen over time, you may want to talk with a qualified professional who can determine how best to help you.

Spiritual Disillusionment
Parents who have a belief in God may find themselves in a spiritual crisis as they question their beliefs. Religious concerns about the hereafter often surface. “Why did God let this happen?” is a question we can no more answer than all the other questions about imperfections in this world. Talking about spiritual and philosophical questions with other parents who have experienced a similar loss may be helpful. For those with concerns of a spiritual nature, try to find an understanding, nonjudgmental member of your faith and open yourself to that person.

Coping Constructively
As a family, talk about the death with one another; discuss your loss and your pain. Talk about the good times you remember, as well as those times that were not so good. All family members, including surviving siblings, will be grieving in their own manner—do your best to honor these differences and allow everyone to feel included. Surviving siblings need to know that you care about them just as much as your child who died. Remember that it is better to express feelings than to internalize them and that crying is healthy and therapeutic.

You may find it helpful to write out your feelings or to write a letter to your child who has died, expressing the things you were not able to say before the death. This may include talking about the disease of addiction or substance abuse and how you did your best to help. For many, this is a good way to say, “I love you!”
Allow friends to help. When they ask what they can do for you, don’t be afraid to tell them of your needs and what will help you. It will also help them.

Consider becoming involved with a self-help bereavement support group such as The Compassionate Friends. In addition, TCF offers two closed Facebook groups, TCF – Loss to Substance Related Causes and TCF – Sibling Loss to Substance Related Causes. By sharing with others who have walked a similar path, you may gain some understanding of your reactions and learn ways to cope. Seek professional help and family counseling if necessary.

In time you may find yourself drawn to help others in your child’s memory. Often referred to as reinvestment, such activities may include offering scholarships, writing stories for publication, starting foundations in memory of your child, and providing emotional support for others whose child has died. You may find yourself involved in the fight against substance abuse and addiction. You’ll know when something comes along that is right for you.

Give yourself time, time, and more time. It can take months and sometimes years to open your heart and mind to healing and finding the “new me.” While you will never be the same person you were before the death of your child, choose to survive and then be patient with yourself. In time, your grief will soften as you begin to integrate this loss and heal. Reinvesting in life will come. Eventually you will recall the good times from when your child lived, rather than the bad times of how your child died.

Beyond the Stigma
When we lose a child in a substance abuse related death, this stigma can carry social discrimination that causes some to hide the cause of death from others, even those who are willing to offer support.

Even if you decide to keep the cause of your child’s death a secret, don’t allow this to deprive you of the joy of speaking about your child to your family and friends who want to support you. Remember the life of your child, focusing on accomplishments and aspirations. Substance related issues do not define the sum of your child’s life.

This brochure is sponsored by

Ron and June Byrd
in loving memory of
their daughter, Erika Byrd

Nancy Juracka
in loving memory of
her son, Lance John Juracka

TCF Shoreline Chapter
in loving memory of
their children, grandchildren and siblings

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