How to Help When an Alcoholic or Addict Dies

Sad lonely girl sitting on stairs
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When someone with an addiction dies, the grieving process for those to close that person can be difficult. It can bring up feelings of intense guilt, hurt, anger, and regret as the loved one struggles to come to terms with what "could have been done" to prevent the death.

Providing support to a grieving friend or family member can be almost as difficult. Knowing what to say—or, more importantly, what not to say—is not always easy and can often leave you at a loss for words.

How to Provide Support

When someone experiences the death of a loved one with an addiction, the feeling the person will undergo will be largely characterized by conflict. While there may be beautiful memories to share, there may be just as many traumatic ones the person would rather forget.

What makes the situation all the more difficult is the cultural tradition by which people are not meant to "speak ill of the dead," Because of this, people will often talk in generalities or not at all. This creates a sense of isolation that can only deepen a person's despair.

To overcome this, try to provide support in the following ways:

  • Be physically present as much as possible and keep in regular contact by phone.
  • Answer emails promptly if the person reaches out to you.
  • Listen actively and look the person in the eye when you communicate. Do not allow yourself to become distracted or appear disinterested.
  • Allow the person to feel whatever they feel. Accept those feeling without judgment and avoid reacting with disapproval or even uncertainty.
  • Pitch in around the house and make yourself available for errands. But avoid any reaction that may be considered critical. A deeply grieving person will often let daily tasks fall by the wayside. Help out but do so cheerfully.
  • Try not to take it personally if the person lashes out at you. If you need to extricate yourself, do so graciously and let the person know you'll follow up in a day or so.

If you say you are going to follow up, do it. Failure to do so may suggest that you've decided to drop that person or are no longer interested.

What Not to Say

When an addict dies, the loved ones will often struggle with feelings of shame or fear that people may be judging them for not acting enough. These emotions are often right on the surface, so you need to do everything possible to avoid touching these emotional landmines.

To do so requires you to be extra careful about not only what you say but how you say it. Among the considerations:

  • Avoid being critical in any way. Even questions like "When was the last time you saw them?" may be interpreted as "Why weren't you there?" if you are not careful.
  • Never criticize the addict or give a summation of why they may have become an addict. ("They were always such a lonely person.")
  • Don't suggest how a person should feel or even suggest you understand how that person feels. Rather expresses your condolences; don't make it about you.
  • Avoid platitudes like "They are in a better place now." Don't assume a person shares your religious or spiritual beliefs. Even if the person does, platitudes like these signal the end of a conversation rather than the beginning.
  • Do not give unsolicited advice even if you are trying to help. It gives the sense that you are taking over rather than providing support. Only give advice if the grieving person asks for it.

Don't Stay Silent

Don't not say anything. While situations like these can be difficult, communicating your discomfort with silence only makes matters worse. It is better to apologize for not having the right words than to say nothing at all. If anything, offer to be there if the person wants to talk. Keep the door open.

Finally, while it is important to say something and let the person know that you care, you do not fill the air with words. People who are in the middle of tense situations will often talk incessantly out of discomfort or anxiety. If you're in a one-on-one situation with someone who is grieving, sometimes it's better to accept the silence. Rather, reach out and take that person's hand. The simple act can often say more than all of the words in the world.

4 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. Templeton L, Ford A, et al. Bereavement through substance use: findings from an interview study with adults in England and Scotland. Addiction Research & Theory. 2016;(24)5:341-354. doi:10.3109/16066359.2016.1153632

  2. Valentine C. Families Bereaved by Alcohol Or Drugs: Research on Experiences, Coping and Support. Routledge. 2017.

  3. Templeton L, Valentine C, et al. Bereavement following a fatal overdose: The experiences of adults in England and Scotland. Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy. 2017;(24)1:58-66. doi:10.3109/09687637.2015.1127328

  4. Valentine C.  Families Bereaved by Alcohol Or Drugs: Research on Experiences, Coping and Support. Routledge. 2017.

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.