How to Support Someone Who Lost a Loved One to Drugs

It's important to be present and listen

After a death from drugs in the family, it is normal for relatives and loved ones to grieve. However, supporting people who are going through drug-related bereavement can be complicated.

While there may be beautiful memories of positive experiences with the loved one who has died, there may also be traumatic memories from negative experiences. For instance, they may have experienced distress seeing the loved one intoxicated or violent, financial problems which may have affected the family, as well as a possible history of physical, emotional or sexual abuse, legal problems, or other difficulties.

The loss of a friend or family members from drugs is particularly painful if the person was young, and otherwise healthy. Despite the negativity, you can still find a way to be supportive to someone who has lost a loved to drug addiction. Try finding inspiration from the list of suggestions below.

Be Present

supportive friend holding hands
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When trying to support someone who has just lost a relative or loved one to a death from drugs, people often wonder how to give support and struggle for those magic words that will take away the pain. You can do this by being physically present and helping them feel less isolated. Here are some ideas.

  • Be available for phone calls
  • Go for a visit to spend time with them
  • Respond promptly to email messages
  • Send a card, letter, or flowers


Worry less about saying the "right" thing, and more on allowing the person to speak about their experience, if they choose to. Be patient and give them the option to talk about whatever is on their mind.

Listening involves giving the person your full attention while allowing them space to speak without interruption. 

Accept Their Feelings

A loved one bereaved by a death from drugs is likely to have even more complex and contradictory feelings than other bereaved people. Here's an overview of things they might feel.

  • Liberation or relief that the addict will no longer overshadow their life with the unpredictability and addiction 
  • Extreme sadness about what might have been if the deceased had gotten clean
  • Guilt about the times they wished it could all be over
  • Responsible for bringing about the death of their loved one 

None of these feelings are wrong, and your acceptance will help your friend to process them.

Express Sympathy

Saying "I'm sorry you're going through this," may be more supportive than comments like, "I understand how you feel." Even if you have lost someone to a death from drugs, the experiences and relationships are likely to have been quite different, so expressing understanding you don't have may be alienating to the bereaved person. 

Express genuine empathy around universal human emotions that may be part of grief, such as anger, sadness, disappointment, and regret.

Stay Neutral

Teenager supporting friend
Staying calm and neutral is most supportive to someone who has lost a loved one to drugs. Huy Lam / Getty Images

Staying neutral can be tricky, especially if you had negative experiences with, or opinions about the deceased. But it is more supportive to express no judgment or negative feelings about the person who has died, even if the bereaved does so.

If the bereaved talk about how cruel and abusive the addicted person was, express concern for them, for example, by saying,"That must have been so hard for you," rather than, "I don't know why you put up with that idiot."

These neutral comments allow the bereaved to come to terms with their own feelings, and to accept their own reasons for the way they handled the relationship, whether or not you feel they were correct.

Encourage and Support Self Care

Young man helping friend with dishes
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Grief and depression can sometimes get in the way of people taking proper care of themselves. Regular sleep, meals, and exercise may fall by the wayside.  The bereaved may stop practicing good personal hygiene and may fail to keep their home clean and tidy. Be encouraging and helpful in a kind, uncritical way. 

Help With Practicalities

There are many daily tasks a grieving person may neglect because they feel depressed or can't find the energy. You can be supportive by:

  • babysitting
  • preparing a meal
  • helping with household chores

There may be additional practicalities to take care of, that can seem overwhelming to the bereaved, such as:

  • informing friends and family of the death
  • making arrangements for the funeral
  • dealing with doctors, lawyers and inheritance issues
  • dealing with unresolved legal issues arising from the addiction, such as debt, or issues around the death from drugs itself

Avoid Burnout

Woman walking on beach
Stuart Ashley / Getty Images

It can be hard offering support to someone who has lost an addicted loved one. Emotions can run high, and it can be quite draining trying to help. But your loyalty is important.

If you feel overwhelmed yourself, back off and take a break.

Don't allow resentment to mount, and then vent to someone else about the bereaved person. If they find out, this may be more hurtful to the bereaved person than if you hadn't tried to support them in the first place. 

Accompany the Person

There may be events following the death of someone with an addiction that will be very difficult for the bereaved person. To be supportive, you can offer to accompany them to:

  • make statements to the police or to reporters
  • talk to doctors, funeral directors, and lawyers
  • a court proceeding

Respect the bereaved wishes if they want to do these things alone.

Recognize Grief is a Process

Couple resting peacefully
Patryce Bak / Getty Images

Grief is a complex process involving several different stages, and a range of different, and often contradictory emotions. People vary greatly in how long it takes them to recover from the death of a loved one. 

Let the bereaved go through this process in their own way and in their own time, while having faith that eventually, they will find peace. 

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Feigelman W, Jordan JR, Gorman BS. Parental grief after a child's drug death compared to other death causes: investigating a greatly neglected bereavement population. Omega (Westport). 2011;63(4):291-316. doi:10.2190/OM.63.4.a

  2. Mauro T. The many victims of substance abuse. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2007;4(9):43-51. 

  3. Fernández-alcántara M, Cruz-quintana F, Pérez-marfil MN, Catena-martínez A, Pérez-garcía M, Turnbull OH. Assessment of Emotional Experience and Emotional Recognition in Complicated Grief. Front Psychol. 2016;7:126. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00126

  4. Milic J, Muka T, Ikram MA, Franco OH, Tiemeier H. Determinants and Predictors of Grief Severity and Persistence: The Rotterdam Study. J Aging Health. 2017;29(8):1288-1307. doi:10.1177/0898264317720715

  5. Shear MK. Grief and mourning gone awry: pathway and course of complicated grief. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2012;14(2):119-28.

Additional Reading
  • Moe J. Understanding addiction and recovery through a child's eyes: Help, hope, and healing for the family. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications. 2007.

  • Orford J, Dalton S, Hartney E, et al. "The Close Relatives of Untreated Heavy Drinkers: Perspectives on Heavy Drinking and its Effects." Addiction Research & Theory. 10(5):439-463. doi: 10.1080/1606635021000034030

  • Kulber-Ross, M.D., E. On Death and Dying. New York: Schribner. 1969.
  • Orford et al Coping with Alcohol and Drug Problems: The Experiences of Family Members in Three Contrasting Cultures. Hove: Routledge. 2005.

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.