Talking to kids about an overdose death

The death of any loved one or friend can bring with it many different and unexpected emotions. However, when someone dies from an overdose the connection to substance use disorder (SUD) and associated stigma can create additional layers of complex emotions, making the death especially difficult to talk about and process. 

“Just as a period does not define a sentence, the cause of death does not define a person.” - Sarah Montgomery, LCSW-C  and Joy McCrady, MS, LGPC, NCC

What makes an overdose different?

A father talks to his teenage son, both look concerned

Overdose deaths are commonly associated with SUD, a chronic condition that can impact how someone acts and interacts with other people. Before the death of the person with SUD, family members and friends may have experienced months or years of difficult interactions with their loved one. For this reason, unexpected emotions may arise during the grieving process. Family and friends may feel:

  • Anger and frustration because the person who died continued to use drugs despite the negative impact on their life.
  • Guilt because they wonder if they could have done more to help.
  • Relief because they do not have to worry about their loved one anymore.

Even if a person living with SUD has not died from an overdose, family members may experience anticipatory grief. This type of grief occurs when people process and accept a potential loss before it happens. It can connect to death or other types of loss. Read more about this type of grief on Extension’s Anticipatory Grief webpage

In addition to these complicated emotions, there is also the layer of social stigma surrounding drug use and overdose. Though the general public is beginning to view SUD as a chronic disease as opposed to a “moral failing”. This stigma can even extend to someone’s death. Like deaths from suicide, an overdose death can be viewed as something someone chose as opposed to the result of a disease. It may also be unclear whether the overdose was intentional or accidental.

Each of these layers can make it difficult to talk about what happened with children and help them process the death.