Chapter 2: Why your grief may be different

What you did or didn’t know

I've been there
Sarah shares how it felt freeing for her to speak openly about how her husband Kevin died. (3:22)Video transcript

When my brother died, finally there was this nothingness in my chest. The constant feeling of chaos and the expectation and fear of the worst thing that could happen were gone.When I heard she had overdosed, I felt like I had crumpled into a million pieces, and I’d never be whole again. It’s taken a long time to pick up the pieces, and I know I will never be the same.

Depending on your relationship with the person who has died, information that comes to light about them may or may not be a surprise. If you learn details about the person’s life, lifestyle, and substance use after their death, especially if the information doesn’t fit with what you thought you knew, this can add new layers to your grief.

Because every relationship is different, not everyone will have known the person who died in the same way, and they won’t necessarily feel the same way about the person and their death.

Below are different situations that may or may not apply to you. Click on each one to find out more.

You may have spent years in fear, knowing that this person was using substances. You may have felt a deep sense of helplessness, frustration, and confusion. You may have thought that they could die any day, while always hoping they would recover and survive. You may have felt isolated and alone with your fears and worries. 

It may be that even though you knew the person well, you weren’t aware of their substance use. You might feel betrayed by the person or confused about the nature of your relationship. 

It may be that another person didn’t know about the person’s substance use while you were painfully aware of it. Their discovery of the substance use may be shocking to them, and they may have trouble believing it. If you withheld information, they may also feel angry with you.

Homelessness, poverty, and mental or physical health challenges can lead to substance use. It is also true that long-term substance use can impact a person’s mental and physical health and lead to poverty and homelessness. This can result in an even greater sense of social isolation and stigmatization for them and for you. 

What may help

  • If you knew about the person’s substance use, you may feel guilty or helpless that you weren’t able to intervene. Remind yourself that you are human and have limits in terms of what you can know or do at any given time.
  • Living with the uncertainty of not knowing if someone will survive their substance use is emotionally exhausting. It’s important to recognize and acknowledge all of your thoughts and feelings. 
  • You or others may be in shock for some time before you can begin to process the complexities of your loss. Take time to let information sink in.
  • Consider whether it would be helpful to take control of when and how much information you want to hear. News and social media can be overwhelming at times.
  • Talking with others who knew the person who died can be helpful as long as everyone understands that each of you may grieve differently, even from one day to another.
  • Consider joining a support group. It can be helpful to talk to others who have been through similar experiences.