Chapter 2: Why your grief may be different

Stigma and isolation

The grief expert says
Marney Thompson, bereavement counsellor, speaks about assumptions that people make around substance - related deaths. (3:22)Video transcript
I've been there
Jennifer speaks about the sense of isolation families may experience when grieving a death by substance use. (3:22)Video transcript
Jennifer explains how to support families who are grieving the death of someone through substance use. (3:22)Video transcript
The support worker says
Alana Weatherbee, harm reduction advocate and support worker, speaks about the importance of using person-centred language. (3:22)Video transcript

If someone dies from cancer, people are very sympathetic. If someone dies from using a substance, people think that the person made that choice.

I went to a hospice support group, but the people there were much older than me, and most of the people they talked about had died a more “natural” death. Being there just increased my feelings of being different and stigmatized. I felt so alone.

A lack of understanding about substance use can create stigma, which involves negative attitudes and/or beliefs about the person who has died. You may have already experienced stigma or judgments about the way you or your family members have coped with or responded to the person’s substance use.

When stigma comes together with someone’s general discomfort about death and grief, it can be very confusing and distressing to you. You may feel disappointed when someone you thought would reach out now avoids you or says hurtful things. You may wonder if there is something wrong with how you are grieving, and you might begin to “shut down” – stop talking about the person, their death, and your grief.

The person who died may have been reluctant to seek help, become isolated, or been denied services because of stigmatization. You may also face similar difficulties in finding support for your grief. If your grief is unrecognized, unacknowledged, or discredited, youre likely to feel very alone and misunderstood.


What may help

  • Remind yourself that your grief is real. Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings and look for people who can just listen or be with you without judgment.
  • Even if it’s difficult, reach out to friends, family, co-workers, and others. Let them know what is and isnt helpful for you right now.
  • Give yourself permission to walk away from comments or attitudes that feel hurtful.
  • Notice which people you feel most at ease with and make plans to spend time with them regularly. Accept their invitation to meet or suggest a regular, shared activity, such as going for walks together.
  • If you have attended a bereavement support group in the past, you may now feel they are no longer able to relate to you. Consider joining a bereavement support group for those grieving a substance-related death. If there isn't a local resource, look for an online group or forum. In time, you might even decide to start your own peer support group.
  • If you’re feeling very isolated or stuck in your grief, seek help from an experienced grief counsellor.