Fundraising recovery walk for Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs, and SFAD’s stand at CBUK 2016. Photos by SFAD.
The death of a loved one changes everything, no matter how it happens. But for families dealing with the death of a loved one through drugs or alcohol, the grief of losing someone is compounded by fear, stigma, shame and uncertainty.
That’s why Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs (SFAD) is a vital organisation for families dealing with this very specific type of grief.
SFAD offers support across Scotland, to any family affected by someone’s substance use. Thanks to ongoing fundraising and volunteering efforts, the organisation helps people across Scotland with a range of free support services.
“By ‘families’ we don’t necessarily mean biological families, although sometimes it does include blood relatives,” explains Billy Alexander, bereavement support services coordinator at Scottish Families. “But it’s who you count as your family – it could be friends, colleagues.”
“We’re unique because most service providers in Scotland focus on the individual who is in recovery or using substances. Very few organisations think about the family and the impact that an individual’s substance use has on the family as a group. Family inclusive practice is essential to a positive and sustained recovery.”
A large part of SFAD’s work aims to help those dealing with a family member’s ongoing substance use. As Billy explains, this could be anything from talking to worried parents about unidentified substances they’ve found in their children’s room, to facilitating interventions and family support groups.
However, the charity is also there when the worst happens. Sometimes a loved one’s substance use takes their life and the pain of losing someone to drugs or alcohol is unlike any other type of bereavement.
“The big difference is that it is a double bereavement,” Billy explains. “You’ve lost the person to alcohol or a substance, first and foremost. That could have been a week ago, a year ago, ten years ago. Then all of a sudden you’ve actually lost them physically.”
“A lot of professionals and clients don’t quite grasp that,” says Billy, who works closely with bereaved families on a regular basis to help them understand what they are going through. “I try to explain, ‘You’ve lost your son to heroin, and now you’ve lost him again, this time physically. You were already grieving the loss of him to the substance, then five years on you’ve lost him physically.’
“Then also you’ve got the whole police investigation around it. In Scotland, if there’s drugs suspected or implicated in any way, then the police have to come in and carry out an investigation for a sudden and unexplained death. Before you’ve dealt with the bereavement, you’ve got the police investigation in your home or your loved one’s home, furthering the stress and stigma for families.”
Because of these investigations, it can add to questions and uncertainty for a family, as well as further shame and stigma, causing even more distress.
“The police do a fabulous job, and so does the coroner, but that doesn’t make it any easier for the family,” says Billy. “They have that fear and uncertainty.”
“Sometimes they are treated like criminals. It rips my heart out when I hear that.” He continues: “For example, a mum has been called to the hospital because her son has had an overdose of heroin. The professionals treat her very differently from somebody bereaved by cancer, because he’s perceived by some professionals as being ‘just a junkie’.”
“We’re talking about experienced, intelligent nurses and doctors. Families can be treated so differently, with shame and guilt and stigma, by some professionals. That still happens to this day.
“Imagine you’re struggling with the loss and grief, and then all that on top of it, plus the double bereavement. You might be thinking, when am I going to get my loved one’s body to be able to have a funeral? But nobody can give you an answer – and that’s tough. Then you’ve got questions like why did they do it? Did they know this time that they were doing too much, was it deliberate? Could I have done anything differently?”
Support networks can be vital for people in this situation in the weeks and months following a loved one’s death. But how can you support someone who is grieving after an alcohol or drugs-related death?
“First and foremost, be there and support them,” advises Billy. “Don’t give advice or try to fix it. The best thing to do is something practical. Don’t just give them a number, pick up the phone for them.”
For example, Billy says that tackling financial uncertainty or difficult practicalities can be an invaluable way of helping. Finding a funeral director who does payment plans, gathering information on bereavement benefits, or chasing up authorities for information can be a great practical help. Although you’ll never be able to take away their pain, you might be able to ease some of their practical worries.
Help from Scottish Families
Scottish Families has a helpline for anyone affected by a friend or family member’s alcohol or drug abuse. You can call Monday to Friday from 9am-11pm and from 5pm-11pm on Saturday and Sundays, on 08080 101011.
Their Telehealth Services also offers free, confidential support via telephone, email and webchat, as well as self-help through their website. This means that families in rural locations or those unable to access other kinds of services can get the help they need.
Those who have lost a loved one to drugs can attend up to six face-to-face counselling sessions with a BACP accredited counsellor, if appropriate, all paid for by Scottish Families.
Furthermore, Billy and his colleagues provide training for other professionals and organisations to help them understand the challenges of bereavement by drugs or alcohol. This includes training teachers in how to approach families and support bereaved pupils.