Bereavement & Grief Support in the Aftermath of an Overdose Loss

Normalize the conversation around grief and bereavement to help provide support to those experiencing the loss of a loved one or co-worker to a death by overdose.

Bereavement Grief Support in the Aftermath of an Overdose Loss
@Artinun -

Grief is a normal and personal emotional response to a loss. Each person reacts and responds to grief differently. These differences are normal. The differences in how grief is expressed is mostly based on the unique personalities and different upbringings of people. The way we respond to grief is influenced whether we have previously experienced loss in the past and how grieving was modeled for us by others when they experienced loss.

Included are introductions to Eluna Network by Molly Hasson, resource center director, and Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing by Aimee Dunkle, chapter coordinator/board membertwo organizations that provide support and resources.

The purpose of this article is to normalize the conversation around grief and bereavement to help provide support to those experiencing the loss of a loved one or co-worker to a death by overdose.

The expressions of grief can vary widely:

  • Some people get quiet and want to be left alone while others get restless and feel loneliness unless they are with others while grieving.
  • Some people experience grief with sadness and tears while others deal with grief with humor or sarcasm.
  • Some people may feel guilty and blame themselves while others may feel anger and hostility.
  • Some people process grief by speaking out as an advocate to share their lived experience and find purpose, meaning and hope by sharing while others prefer to reflect in solitude to find peace and solace by internalizing their grief.

A Survivor’s Story

The Rhodes Family. From left to right: Kerri (mother); Taylor (son); Blair (daughter); and Taylor, Sr. (father)The Rhodes Family. From left to right: Kerri (mother); Taylor (son); Blair (daughter); and Taylor, Sr. (father)Shared with permission by Kerri RhodesKerri Rhodes is a survivor of her son Taylor’s 2019 death by an overdose from fentanyl and heroin. Taylor’s addiction began with exposure to opioid pain management following a high school sport injury requiring surgery. Kerri, her husband Taylor, Sr., and daughter Blair, courageously share their story to shine light on addiction.

I met Kerri through her advocacy work on opioid risk reduction and overdose prevention. I jointly presented with Kerri in October 2023 for "Waging a Counterattack Against Opioids in the Workplace and at Home" for the Blue Ridge Chapter of the Construction Financial Management Association. Likewise, Kerri and Blair both participated in a webinar I moderated. Kerri is the Director of Behavioral Health for the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Department in Richmond, Virginia.

Kerri shares her personal experience with grief and bereavement surrounding Taylor’s overdose death.

It can be difficult for family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances to show compassionate support to survivors of overdose loss. Many people tend to want to avoid uncomfortable conversations whenever they can. They often worry about saying the wrong thing or making the situation worse. Rarely does acknowledging someone's pain or loss make it worse. Acting like nothing happened or avoiding someone after a loss makes it worse. 

Believe me, a person acknowledging my son, Taylor, will not make it worse. I am aware of his absence every second of every day. I love hearing someone say his name. The only balm for this kind of pain is love and connection. I am so grateful for the people who were brave enough to sit in the dark with me and just simply be there. Kerri Rhodes with son TaylorKerri Rhodes with son TaylorShared with permission by Kerri Rhodes

When we lost Taylor I was surrounded by love and compassion. Friends jumped on airplanes to be with us, neighbors lent us their houses to house our family and friends, and God and Universe brought all the people we needed to get through those early days. Again, love and connection are the balm. I did not find comfort in bereavement peer support, it added to my trauma to hear other people's trauma and my bucket was beyond full. Other mother' who had lost children were far more helpful to me. They gave me hope because I saw them putting one foot in front of the other and knew I could too. 

I did have people that said some of the most inappropriate things after Taylor died. I tried to give them grace. I know each of us are doing our best in those moments including me. We are not taught how to sit with pain and discomfort and often those that are the most helpful have themselves been through the "fire" in some capacity. I found a lot of peace in nature and in stillness.

Society needs to see addiction as the long-term chronic health disease that it is. My biggest struggle was the terrible treatment we found in the school system, healthcare system and judicial system while Taylor struggled with addiction. The stigma is adding to trauma for those that struggle and our families. 

Kerri's advice for friends and workplace leaders to support families experiencing a loss by overdose:

  • Reach out and send cards, emails, or texts of condolences—each and every one is read.
  • Empathy is feeling "with" someone, sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. Please, don't feel sorry for them.
  • Showing up at the service matters. It is noticed who shows up in our darkest moments. 
  • Be the person that reaches out after the first 30 days. This is going to take a long time and your support matters. 
  • Say the name of the "loved one" as it puts their light back in the world.
  • Be flexible and have realistic expectations. There is no getting over it and sometimes it is simply hard to breathe. 
  • Be aware that bittersweet is forever part of our lives and every good thing is lined with sadness.

Helping Someone

For some people in some circumstances, grief becomes extreme and does not get better over time. Dealing with or handling grief gets more complicated when a person is dealing with multiple grief layers at once, including a death of a loved one compounded by an illness of their own, job loss or existing financial stress, or an existing mental health condition. Sometimes this grief leads to isolation, depression, and hopelessness.

In these circumstances letting the person you are concerned about their wellbeing and physical safety is even more important. It is important to share information with them about 24/7-365 crisis hotlines, including the following services:

The Suicide & Crisis Line: Dial 988

Note: the old number (800/273-8255) for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline continues to work and now routes directly to 988)

Crisis Text Line:  Text HELP or CONNECT to 741-741

It is important to consider if the person is at risk of self-harm or substance misuse that could turn to an accidental or intentional overdose or suicide. Calling other family members or friends is appropriate to check-in. If you are concerned about the person’s life being at risk or harm being done to others, calling 911 to activate emergency services is advisable.

Both organizations described below have provided support and help to individuals, families and/or organizations.