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Coping With Bereavement By Alcohol Or Drugs

A guide to coping with bereavement by alcohol or drugs, including coroners’ inquests, media coverage, and grief

Last updated: 17 December 2019

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The sudden death of a loved one is always shocking and bewildering, but it can be especially traumatic if your loved one died because of alcohol or drug use. As well as your grief you may also have to cope with investigations and reporting of your loved one’s death. This guide explains what can happen after a person dies because of alcohol and drug use and provides helpful advice on coping with your grief, including information on resources that can support you.

What happens if your loved one’s death is investigated by a coroner?

If your loved one’s death is investigated by a coroner then there will be a delay before you can register their death and arrange their funeral.

It is a legal requirement that all deaths where the cause and circumstances are unknown are investigated by a coroner or, in Scotland, the procurator fiscal. Investigation by a coroner happens after almost 50% of deaths in hospital. If they cannot establish the cause of your loved one’s death after their initial examination, they will order a coroner’s inquest. The inquest will be held at the local coroner’s court and witnesses will be called to provide evidence for it. The staff at the Coroner’s Court will explain everything that needs to happen and support you throughout the process.

The Coroner’s Office in your area can also provide you with advice and support, but you can also talk to a volunteer from the Coroners Courts Support Service (CCSS), which provides guidance and support for bereaved families in England and Wales attending a coroner’s inquest. Trained volunteers provide empathetic and non-judgemental explanations of the processes of the Coroner’s Court and consequences of an inquest.

In Scotland a procurator fiscal will interview people such as yourself and your loved one’s doctor, or any other witnesses, to establish a cause of death. These investigations do not involve court proceedings.

The Ministry of Justice and the Crown Office and Procurators Fiscal Service have published advice for bereaved families involved in an investigation.

Many bereaved families feel frustrated by the delay before their loved one is returned to them, but find knowing how their loved one died helpful for their healing process. Coroner’s and procurator fiscal’s reports are published and include recommendations to prevent future deaths of vulnerable people in similar situations.

Both coroners and procurators fiscal can issue interim death certificates before their investigation is complete, if they are satisfied that they do not need to see your loved one again to complete their investigation.

Once you have a copy of their death certificate you can choose a funeral director and start arranging a funeral for your loved one.

What happens if your loved one’s death is investigated by the police?

If your loved one died because of an overdose of illegal drugs, the police will investigate it to identify the person who supplied them with these substances. If the Crown Prosecution Service decides that it is in the public interest to prosecute this person there will be a court case.

If the accused helped to administer the drugs to your loved one they might be charged with manslaughter. Going to a court case involving the death of your loved one will be distressing, but will not stop you from saying goodbye to them.

Victim Support is an independent organisation that can help you during this time.

What happens if your loved one’s death is covered by the media?

Deaths by alcohol and drugs may be covered by the media, which will report details of the person who has died, their life and the circumstances of their death.

This can feel very invasive, but deaths are not private events and can impact wider communities. As long as it is reported sensitively, there is nothing wrong with a newspaper or broadcaster publishing facts related to it. The proceedings of coroner’s inquests are also in the public interest. The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) and OFCOM have published editorial guidelines for journalists and broadcasters. If you feel that media coverage of your loved one’s death has breached these guidelines you can submit a complaint to them.

Although it might feel unwelcome, accurate reporting can clarify facts and dispel myths about what happened to your loved one.

What unique difficulties are experienced by people who are bereaved by alcohol or drugs?

People bereaved by alcohol and drugs can experience unique difficulties coping with their grief, including secondary losses and disenfranchised grief.

Secondary losses

If your loved one was addicted to alcohol or drugs their death is likely not the only loss of them that you will have experienced.

You might have felt deeply separated from the start of their addiction, because of the changes in their behaviour or because they were no longer in contact with you. The circumstances of their situation might have made you suspect that their death was inevitable, even if you had never spoken about with anyone. These losses are called ‘secondary losses’. Anticipatory grief or complicated grief are normal feelings for people in these situations.

Stigma and disenfranchised grief

We usually assume that bereavement generates sympathy from family, friends, health-care professionals and anyone who hears about the loss, especially if the person who died was young. Sadly, many people do not empathise with deaths caused by alcohol and drugs and do not support the bereaved friends and family because they believe that it was self-inflicted or that the person did not deserve to be loved.

This rejection can make people bereaved by alcohol and drugs feel that they are actually not entitled to grieve for the death of their loved one. Even if you have never encountered any actual negativity you might still feel this yourself.

It is important to remember that everyone has a right to grieve and although you cannot change anyone’s opinions, nobody else can define how you should feel after the death of your loved one.

The Compassionate Friends have produced a leaflet for parents bereaved by alcohol and drugs on coping with judgemental attitudes. The advice in it is also useful for anyone whose loved one has died after using these substances.

Talking to a qualified grief therapist, who won’t judge the cause of your loved one’s death, can also help you talk about your feelings in a safe space.

What can you do to cope with bereavement from alcohol and drugs

Everyone’s grief is unique and there is no right way to cope with it, especially if your feelings are complicated, but there are some things you can do to help the healing process.

Express your feelings

If you are worried that people will be unsympathetic to your grief, you might feel inclined to bottle up your feelings, but this can have a very negative impact on how you cope with them. If you feel that you cannot talk to anyone close to you calling confidential helplines, or attending grief therapy and bereavement counselling can provide a non-judgemental outlet for your feelings. There are many bereavement support and grief counselling organisations in the UK that provide free therapy sessions.

Join a support group

Talking to other bereaved people at a peer-support group can be very helpful if you feel that even sympathetic family and friends do not understand what you are going through. The group will be moderated by a qualified grief therapist and give people who attend space to talk about their feelings. If you do not feel comfortable attending a support group that is open to people bereaved by other causes, you can go to one specifically for people who have died because of drugs or alcohol.

Look after yourself

Self-care is an important part of coping with grief. Finding meaningful and enjoyable activities can help you move forward with your life. Therapeutic practices, such as grief meditation, can help you cope with daily life and give you the confidence to try other activities. Art therapy can be both enjoyable and help you cope with your feelings. Some bereavement organisations also provide grief retreats, where there will be no pressure to discuss the cause of your loved one’s death if you do not feel comfortable doing so.

Try new activities

When you feel ready, trying a new activity that has nothing to do with bereavement, such as learning a language, taking up a sport, or volunteering, can be fulfilling if you have lost someone you love. Taking things slowly, such as only going to events or sessions where you feel comfortable leaving early or not returning, can help you approach it.

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