Profile of Drug-Death Bereaved Parents

This article is adapted from a longer selection first appearing in The Compassionate Friends We Need Not Walk Alone Magazine, (Winter2011/Spring 2012 issue).

Parents losing children to a drug overdose or a drug-related death face an especially daunting post-loss adaptation challenge, when compared to other bereaved parents whose children died from suicides, automobile accidents and natural causes. Summing up our survey research results, based on 48 drug-death-bereaved parents, 462 suicide-bereaved, 37 mostly accidental deaths and 24 natural death cases, findings showed drug-death bereaved faced similar social stigmatization from socially significant others as suicide survivors did.

What sets these mourners apart from most other bereaved parents is the scarcity of a drug-death-specific literature to guide them along their difficult healing journeys following their losses. After extensive searches of all available bereavement resources my co-researchers and I found woefully little published on this topic, despite the high frequencies of US drug-related deaths. Unlike those bereaved by suicide, who find a wide variety of articles, books, memoirs, and surveys done by professionals and the bereaved alike, the drug-death bereaved are further challenged, by the paucity of written materials available to guide them.

Following their children’s deaths, a majority of drug-death-bereaved parents are confronted with avoidance and occasional acts of outright scorn expressed by many of their significant others. Approximately half of the drug-death and the suicide-bereaved parents reported hearing blaming comments following the death where close family members or friends blamed the deceased child or the parent for the death. Among the hurtful statements reported were: “It is almost better your son died from drugs now, sparing you the lifelong saga of his reverses and disappointments.”Or “My priest said our daughter won’t be going to heaven because of all the bad things she did and because she wasted her life away with drugs.” Child-denigrating statements like these result in “disenfranchised grief,” a term bereavement professionals apply to unsupportive responses that essentially claim that the deceased is unworthy of being mourned.

In other cases parents are blamed. Several example included: “My ex-husband blamed me for our son’s death. He never let up on his accusations of me for not supervising him closely enough. He even claimed I did drugs with him.” Or, “How come you didn’t get your daughter into a better treatment program?” Such comments add to the parent’s own feelings of inadequacy and nearly obsessional review of what they ‘could’ and ‘should’ have done to prevent the death. Interestingly, as a contrast to the drug and suicide bereaved, none of the parents losing a child to natural causes reported hearing blaming comments and only one (out of 37) whose child died by an accident reported hearing such comments.

We asked our respondents to give us details on the troublesome responses heard from close associates and we grouped responses into seven different types. In addition to Blaming comments mentioned above, we add: Avoidance, e.g. “People avoided me,” Unhelpful advice; e.g. “Isn’t it time you moved on?” Are you still going to that support group”? Absence of a caring interest e.g.”no one asked me how I was feeling afterwards”. “No one mentioned my child’s name afterwards; it was as if he never existed.; Spiritual responses, e.g. “She’s with God now,” “it was God’s will.” Miscellaneous negative, e.g. “At least he didn’t kill anyone else when he died” or “I know how you must feel; I felt that way when my dog died.”

Parents exposed to such negative comments reported significantly more grief difficulties, complicated grief, post-traumatic stress, depression and other psychological difficulties, when compared to the bereaved parents of accident and natural deaths.

William Feigelman, Ph.D.



William Feigelman

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William Feigelman, PhD, is Professor Emeritus and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at Nassau Community College (Garden City, New York), where he has taught for more than 44 years and still teaches part-time. Author and co-author of seven books and more than 40 journal articles, he has written on a wide variety of social science subjects including child adoptions, youth alcohol and drug abuse, problem gambling, tobacco use and cessation, and intergroup relations. Since 2002, after his son Jesse's suicide, Dr. Feigelman has focused his professional writings on youth suicide and suicide bereavement. This work has appeared in Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, Death Studies, Omega: Journal of Death and Dying and Illness, Crisis and Loss. He is a member of the American Association of Suicidology and the Association for Death Education and Counseling, a frequent presenter at bereavement conferences in the U.S., Canada, and Japan, and a co-facilitator of a survivors' support group

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