Why Overdose Deaths Cause Complicated Grief - And Why You May Need Help

This blog is on Complicated Grief, with specific reference to that caused by the death of a loved one from an overdose or other cause involving substance abuse. You may find it helpful to read my earlier blog on "Why Grieving an Overdose Death Is So Hard" first, as this is intended to be a follow up to that one. (Please note that my overdose grief practice and philosophy are based on the model of understanding, identifying and companioning grievers lost in the wilderness of complicated grief developed by internationally known bereavement therapist, author and educator Alan Wolfelt, PhD, CT.)

In 2017 America lost 75,000 individuals to drug overdoses and, as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, our country is currently in the midst of an ongoing opiate epidemic. As the father of three children and an addiction specialist, I’m deeply saddened by this public health crisis. For many years now, the majority of my therapy practice has been dedicated to helping individuals and families recover from addiction. However, I have recently decided to utilize my training and experience in grief counseling as well to offer professional help for families who have lost a loved one to an overdose.

What Is Grief and Mourning?

Grief is simply the term we use to describe our inner response to loss. While grief is but a single word, the experience of grief encompasses a wide range of different thoughts and emotions. Essentially, grief is anything and everything we think and feel inside when we are separated from something or someone we are attached to. And since loss is a normal and unavoidable part of life, our natural human response to loss is also normal. Grief is natural and necessary.

Mourning is grief gone public – the outward expression of our grief. It’s our shared social response to loss. Whenever we cry, talk about our grief, or in any way express our anger, sadness, shock, or any other thought or feeling about a loss, we’re mourning. Mourning, too, is normal and natural. And mourning, like grief, is necessary – it helps us reconcile our grief and find our way to a new normal.

Unfortunately, our society today believes that mourning is often inappropriate. We are pressured to keep our grief inside of us. Spoken or unspoken messages like “be strong and carry on,” “don’t look back; move forward” and “being sad doesn’t help” are prevalent. As a result, the inner experience of grief has been tainted by this thinking. We are told we have a right to happiness. We are told that emotional and spiritual pain are bad, and we should “get over it” as quickly as possible.

What Is Complicated Grief and Mourning?

When you lose a loved one to a progressive disease such as cancer, there is most often an opportunity to prepare for the death. This preparation allows for a psychological process that naturally leads to a normal bereavement.

Complicated grief is a subcategory of grief frequently due to circumstances surrounding the death of our loved one like murder, suicide, accidents and the one we are focused on now, overdose. Complicated grief is normal, necessary grief that has encountered barriers or detours and as a result is stalled, interrupted or off track somehow. It is not necessarily abnormal so to speak, but a complicated response to a challenging loss situation. Studies estimate that 7 to 15% of the bereaved will experience this type of grief.

Complicated mourning is a behavioral or outward manifestation of complicated grief. Some examples of this include substance abuse, self-harm, aggression, depression and others.

Symptoms of Complicated Grief

This list is not all inclusive and combines the reports of various researchers in the field of bereavement. A person experiencing complicated grief will exhibit many of the following symptoms for 6 months or longer:

  • Preoccupation with your sorrow over the loved one’s passing

  • Extreme bitterness about your loss

  • Severe depression and/or deep sadness

  • Withdrawal from social activities

  • Feel that life has no meaning

  • Experience a recurrent urge to die

  • Believe it unfair that you must now live without your loved one

  • Experience a persistent refusal or inability to accept that your loved one has died

  • Believe that you did something wrong, and you could have/should have prevented the death somehow


Complicated grief resembles normal grief in the sense they both have shock, numbness, denial, disbelief, confusion, a search for meaning and a yearning for the loved one. A person will likely experience some panic and fear as well. The major difference between normal grief and complicated grief is that the intensity of these feelings, thoughts and experiences do not decrease over time.

If the process of grief is not complicated, the feelings will diminish and the person will be able to start functioning well in their life again after about 6 months. Individuals with complicated grief continue to experience these feelings and thoughts, along with those above, at such intense levels they are unable to carry on a normal life, re-establish connections with other people and once again be happy.

It is important to note research indicates that in most cases complicated grief requires help from a licensed professional, preferably with a specialty in grief counseling.

Additional Information That You May Be Interested In:

Why Grieving an Overdose Is So Hard

Overdose Grief - Why Therapy Groups Are So Effective

My Son’s Battle with Addiction – Letter from a Mom

Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing (GRASP) offers some groups across the country, as well as good information on reading materials, etc.

Al-anon and Nar-anon are support groups for family members of those suffering from alcoholism or addiction. Even though they are not grief groups, many people find support there following drug and alcohol deaths. Remember that each group is different, but most are very open and supportive of those who have lost someone to an overdose.

UPDATE: The response to my blogs on Overdose Grief has been phenomenal! People from all over the US and even some other countries have responded and wanted to know how they can receive the help they need. Although my professional license only allows me to offer counseling services in the state of GA, my Intervention Services often include finding local services nationwide to assist those in need. The best way I can help those of you experiencing overdose grief is by serving as a Mental Health Resource Finder. If you are interested in finding qualified and highly skilled specialists in your local market who can help you, please contact me at 678-316-3991 or at docjfk@gmail.com to learn more about this service.

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