Drug Deaths Leave Epidemic of Grief

Last month, the CDC released a statistic that should horrify the nation—provisional data indicates 2022 surpassed 2021’s record-breaking number of drug-related deaths: over 109,000 deaths nationwide in just one year. While we can debate how it is that the “greatest” nation on earth can continue to lose 100,000+ of its citizens each year to drugs, the conversation needs to go beyond this. We need to think about the individuals left to grieve these losses.

Consider that for every death,  at least five people are left to grieve. Family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and entire communities must deal with memories, questions, and a need for support during one of life’s most difficult processes- grief. Society often stigmatizes death due to substance use, which can lead bereaved survivors into a more complex and isolating grief experience.

Although grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss, it is something that needs to be witnessed. We cannot fix or remove grief, but we can make space for it. Our country has not made space for it. We focus on numbers and statistics, but we do not talk about what it is like for the millions of bereaved survivors that wake up and go through each day living in a society that dismisses or avoids their grief.

What Grieving People Desire

I have had the honor of working with thousands of individuals bereaved by substance use through my previous work for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and for my current work for the Massachusetts-based SADOD project.

While everybody’s grief experience is unique, the one commonality that the thousands of clients I have served share is a desire for society to validate their grief. A desire for people to not dismiss or make assumptions. A desire for society to at least try to imagine how painful it is for them, to care to learn about their loved one.

We have grown accustomed to speaking about this seemingly never-ending drug epidemic, but what many do not realize is that there is another epidemic brewing, an epidemic of pain and suffering among the bereaved survivors. We need to not only think about how we can make sure there are enough trained professionals to provide support, but we also need to think about what we can each do as individuals.

Listening, Not Fixing

Empathy and listening can go an incredibly long way for somebody grieving a death due to substance use and one does not need to be a professional to offer that. Having the opportunity to share their story and to speak about their loved one to somebody who remains non-judgmental and does not try to fix their pain is what bereaved survivors have been asking for.

As the statistics are, it is likely that most people reading this either know somebody that has died from drugs or at the very least, know somebody grieving a loved one lost to drugs. Thus, next time you connect with somebody affected, ask to learn about their loved one’s life, not their death. The stories are beautiful; my team and I have learned about the most devoted parents, loving and generous children, funny and caring friends, smart and dedicated colleagues, and so many more special individuals through our conversations with their bereaved survivors.

Storytelling is a powerful part of the grief process, and it not only brings a sense of comfort to the survivor, but also helps to educate society, which may decrease stigma and allow for a more comprehensive and compassionate understanding of this relentless epidemic.  We have seen how the drug epidemic took off like wildfire. We must learn from this and open our eyes to the silent epidemic already unfolding. And we must support the millions of bereaved survivors of deaths due to substance use before we find ourselves asking how we let another relentless epidemic take off.

Read more about overdose deaths: Death From Drug Overdose and Survival Support During Covid-19 – Open to Hope

Laura Vargas Laura

Laura Vargas is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a passion for and expertise in grief support for traumatic deaths, with a focus on deaths due to substance use. Laura’s expertise lies in program development for supportive services, as well as direct clinical services with individuals, families, and groups. As a Latina immigrant, Laura strives towards equity and inclusion in all her work. Laura is the Director of Outreach Programs for Peer Support Community Partners’ SADOD project, where she is working on establishing direct outreach programs throughout Massachusetts to reach and connect those who have recently had a loved one die from substance use to supportive services. Prior to this, Laura started and led Philly HEALs, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health-Division of Substance Use Prevention and Harm Reduction (SUPHR)’s Bereavement Care Program for deaths due to substance use. Under Laura’s leadership, the program grew from one clinician to five masters-level clinicians offering an internship program. During the four years that Laura led Philly HEALs, over 4,500 bereaved survivors of loss due to substance use were served through its multitude of services, which included individual and family grief counseling, peer support groups, psychoeducational workshops, community engagement events, and more. The program became known on a national scale as it was the only program in the nation offering free, comprehensive, and highly accessible bereavement support for drug-related deaths. Using the lessons learned and success of the program, Laura provides consultation to various organizations nationwide. Laura has connected with thousands of grieving individuals at every end of the spectrum (from those who were caught completely by surprise by their loved one’s fatal overdose, to those who felt they had been preparing for such a tragedy for many years). Laura has had the immense privilege of building relationships with her clients and witnessing the relief that they feel when they realize that they are not alone in their experiences. That is what drives her to continue advocating and spreading awareness about the importance of decreasing stigma, sharing stories, and supporting one another. Laura has presented at various national conferences, including ADEC and the CDC’s Overdose Data to Action. She has been a featured speaker on various platforms, such as Corazones en Duelo, Journeys through Grief, the Open to Hope podcast, and more. Laura is in the process of writing a chapter in Dr. Jill Harrington’s Superhero Grief, Part Two. Laura received her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. She received her Bachelors degree in Psychology and International Studies, with a minor in Social Work, from the University of Michigan. It is Laura’s goal to ensure that comprehensive and accessible bereavement support for those impacted by the overdose crisis is widely available.

More Articles Written by Laura Vargas