Chapter 2: Why your grief may be different

Thoughts and feelings

I've been there
Jennifer speaks about the difficult emotions and questions when grieving someone's death by substance use. (3:22)Video transcript
Andy and Donna share that life will never be the same after the death of their son, Brian. (3:22)Video transcript
Dana shares about how her grief felt in the days after her brother's death. (3:22)Video transcript
Sarah speaks about feeling many different emotions all at the same time. (3:22)Video transcript
Andy speaks about what has helped him in his grief. (3:22)Video transcript

I felt so angry with him when he died. How could this have happened? I couldn’t help but blame him, and that added even much pain to my grief.

I was always worried and waiting for that terrible phone call. I feel relieved in a strange kind of way now, knowing that she isn’t in danger.

Whatever feelings you had while the person was alive will likely follow you in your grief. There may also be new ones, some of which may be intense, confusing, or disturbing. All of these feelings are normal, yet some may be especially hard to acknowledge and express.

Explore some of these by clicking below.

  • With the person who died for the choices they made
  • With yourself for not protecting the person or preventing the substance use or their death
  • With the person who provided them with the substance that caused or led to their death
  • With friends and family whom you feel could have been more supportive
  • About the lack of compassionate response or help from the programs and services you reached out to
  • With the healthcare system for not being more responsive, compassionate, coordinated, and effective
  • With the government for not doing more for people struggling with substance use
  • With the substance itself – its existence, its availability, its effects
  • About not recognizing that the person had substance use challenges
  • About not saying or doing more
  • About responding with anger to the person who died
  • About contributing to or encouraging their use of the substance
  • About asking them to leave or ending your relationship with them
  • About the person's suffering: their illness, living conditions, isolation, poverty, and/or mistreatment
  • About the circumstances that led to substance use
  • About the time lost together in the past and the possibilities for the future
  • About thinking that if they overdosed, their pain and struggle – or yours – would be over
  • At being judged by others because of what you did or didn’t say or do
  • At your own judgments about yourself and/or the person who died
  • For not letting family and friends know about the substance use out of fear of judgment and stigma
  • That the person’s – and/or your own – suffering has ended
  • That you no longer have to deal with the person’s substance or health-related crises
  • That you no longer have to live in fear of “that call” or worry that the person is going to be hurt or die
  • That the person’s substance use has been a constant source of worry, anxiety, and exhaustion for you
  • That after years of advocating for the person, they still died
  • That due to the stigma of substance use, other people seem to not value the life of the person who died and may minimize or dismiss your grief
  • That there aren’t enough services and help for those struggling with substance use
  • About how the person died: were they alone, in pain, or scared?
  • About withdrawing energy from the effort to make the person's life better
  • If the person struggled for a long time with substance use, you may have feelings of compassion for their struggle, along with frustration, resentment, or anger. 
  • If the person died after a first or early use of a substance, you may feel shock and disbelief, along with guilt, regret, or shame.

What may help

  • Acknowledge your feelings, even if they are painful or disturbing. With time and support, the frequency and intensity of these feelings will likely ease. They may not entirely disappear, and you may not want them to, and that’s okay.
  • Reflect on some of the features or complexities of the relationship you had with the person who died, and how those might affect your grief.
  • If you experience confusing feelings, remind yourself that this is normal. While you may be deeply saddened by the death, you may also feel angry or relieved, or you may feel numb.
  • Consider if there are things you don’t miss. You might feel relieved to be free of feelings of worry or responsibility, and also feel guilty about feeling relief. Remind yourself that all of these are a normal part of grief.
  • Share your thoughts and feelings with supportive people. Look to family, friends, or faith leaders who are able to listen without passing judgment or giving unwanted advice. Consider a bereavement support group for others who are grieving a substance-related death. 
  • If you feel stuck in your thoughts or feelings, seek professional support. Counselling can help you manage unhelpful thoughts in specific ways. 


A note about grief and depression

It can be difficult to distinguish grief from a clinical depression. It’s important to pay attention to possible signs that this may be happening. In response to the complexities of grief, a person’s brain might develop a chemical imbalance that may lead to depression. Untreated depression can complicate grief even further.

Over time, if you or someone close to you continues to have difficulty performing everyday activities, wishes they had also died, or feels hopeless or that life isn’t worth living, it is important to seek medical help. If you or anyone close to you is having thoughts of harming themselves or others, or feels like they are in crisis, contact your local crisis centre (see resource section).

​​ Helpful resources  - Module 5 - Making sense of intense emotions