Coping with Grief from a Substance-Use Death

This information is available as a one-page handout that can be downloaded and printed.



Grief involves several tasks, but they do not unfold in a particular order, and each individual experiences grief in their own way over the course of their lifetime. The tasks of grief:

  • Facing the reality of the loss
  • Coping with the pain of grief
  • Living in a world without the deceased
  • Exploring enduring connections with the deceased
  • Engaging in the next phase of life


Key questions: After someone dies from substance use, the answers to three commonly asked questions may shape survivors’ experiences of grief:

  • “Why did this person die from substance use?”
  • “Did the person intend to die?”
  • “Was the death preventable?”

Key emotions: A death from substance use can cause survivors to experience troublesome thoughts and strong feelings such as shock, disbelief, confusion, anger, blame, guilt, shame, abandonment, rejection, failure, helplessness, hopelessness, unfairness, fear, relief.

Even before the death, coping with substance use may begin to influence what happens to the bereaved after the death occurs:

  • Dynamics of addiction: Relationships can be affected by shifting roles, crises, intense emotions, negative world view, unmanageability, etc.
  • Chronic illness: Caring for a person at risk of an overdose can affect caregivers similarly to how caring for the terminally ill affects them.
  • Ambiguous loss: Sometimes, a person using substances is utterly absent psychologically in a way that resembles an actual death.

Other factors that come into play when someone dies from substance use may have profound effects on the bereaved:

  • Stigma: Society negatively judges people who are affected by substance use, which can cause survivors to be mistreated or isolated.
  • Disenfranchised grief: Survivors’ grief can be treated as insignificant because the deceased’s behavior is seen as contributing to their death.
  • Trauma: Survivors may experience trauma from being involved in situations ranging from taking part in a resuscitation attempt to being exposed to media coverage of the death.
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