We have an unprecedented crisis happening in our country. Every day, 115 people die of opioid overdose. From 1999 to 2016, 350,000 people died. A recent survey by the AP and Center for Public Affairs Research found that one in 10 Americans know a relative or close family member who died of opioid overdose. In April, the U.S. surgeon general issued the first national health advisory since 2005, urging families and friends of addicts to carry naloxone, the drug that can reverse the acute effects of an overdose and give a greater chance of survival. Clearly, we have a huge public health problem with more people dying per day due to opioids than were dying of AIDS at the height of that epidemic.
Beyond the numbers, there is another aspect of these two epidemics that is tragically similar. When people died of AIDS, family members were often reluctant to tell others the cause of death because of the stigma. The same is true with the opioid crisis, leaving families of victims unsupported and isolated. We need to break this trend.
After an overdose death, recognize that the family's grief is deep and complex. Not only have they lost a beloved family member and the future they hoped for with that person, they have exhausted themselves with futile attempts to help. There are feelings of guilt and inadequacy that the loved one couldn't be saved. Frustration erupts at uninformed people who see the addiction as a personal weakness rather than a physiological rewiring of the brain, usually occurring after the person initially took the drugs to deal with the pain of a medical condition. These reactions are combined with anger at the lack of resources for addiction, and resentment toward the addict who wasn't able to kick the habit despite whatever strategies and resources the family could offer. At the same time, rather than the outpouring of support they would receive if their loved one died of something like cancer, the support is muted, tentative or absent, replaced by judgment or simply the would-be comforter's inability to know what to say.
Don't let the stigma of opioid addiction cloud your ability to be a companion for families you care about when they are grieving. When so many others disappear or say nothing, be a safe and confidential resource who is willing to listen to the story, validate the intensely mixed emotions and offer concrete help. In the face of this tragic crisis, let's work together to minimize the secondary crisis of unsupported grief. Be there for them in ways you would want to have others there for you. And remember, with the pervasive and insidious nature of this problem, it could be your own family next.
Amy Florian is CEO of Corgenius, a professional training firm, and works with financial professionals, clergy, hospice personnel, social workers and others who help the grieving. She serves on the advisory board of Soaring Spirits International, a nonprofit organization that provides support for widowed people around the globe.