Supporting people bereaved through a drug- or alcohol-related death

Peter Cartwright

The appalling increase in drug-related deaths is finally and rightly starting to get the attention it deserves. What is still largely missing though, is recognition of the typically severe, complex and long-lasting nature of the bereavements that people go through when losing a loved one in this way – as some readers of DRNS will already know.

A major bereavement is probably the most emotive life experience most of us have and the one that can feel closest to ‘madness’. Whilst we have evolved to come through bereavement, so most of us do not need specialist help, there are some deaths that are often especially difficult to grieve, like those caused through drug or alcohol use. Therefore, people bereaved this way often do need support.

However, given the stigmatised nature of drug-related deaths, people often experience disenfranchised grief, this is where their loss is not socially sanctioned, openly acknowledged or publicly mourned – so, at the very time they most need the support of others they can be deprived of it. Additionally, until recently these bereavements have been internationally neglected in research, policy and practice. Given this neglect it is perhaps unsurprising that the response of the services that support these bereaved people often falls short of what they need.

Therefore, myself and twenty colleagues wrote the first book to address how to support these bereaved people. ‘Supporting people bereaved through a drug- or alcohol-related death’ continues recent work to describe and understand these bereavements, as well as for the first time describing how to support this marginalised, stigmatised and high-need group.

Who is the book written for?

Our book is primarily for those whose work involves supporting these bereaved people, such as counsellors, psychotherapists and psychologists, as well as family support workers, drug and alcohol treatment workers, those offering peer support, faith leaders, etc.; as well as family, friends, colleagues etc.

When writing the book, we were mindful that people bereaved this way will be interested in reading it too.

What does the book cover?

Part 1 of our book aims to make sense of substance-related bereavements. Therefore, there are chapters on making sense of bereavement and substance use, as well as how substance use affects a family, and finally on substance-related bereavements, including first-hand accounts of grief written by a mother, a father and a sister.

Part 2 considers how to support these people. First, we cover key considerations for everyone who support these bereaved people, and we introduce three fictitious clients that illustrate the work presented throughout Part 2.

The following chapter provides ideas for non-bereavement specialists about how to support these bereaved people, including what everyone can do. Then there are chapters on what bereavement counselling is and how to provide it.

Follow this we cover how to work with specific aspects of grieving a substance-related death: anxiety, stress and traumatic bereavement; stigma, and shame; anger, blame and guilt; depression; and unfinished business (working through difficult situations and events that have not had a satisfactory resolution, that occurred in the life of a substance-using loved-one who died and/or the events associated with their death and the associated aftermath).

Lastly, there is a chapter on supporting bereaved people who also use substances – who are an even more neglected and marginalised group. This chapter also looks at the impact these bereavements can have when those providing substance-use treatment lose a client, and offers ideas for supporting them.

Part 2 ends with consideration of later bereavement and how far we can help someone. The support interventions we present in Part 2 are described for face-to-face, one-to-one work, and can be easily adapted for online working, helplines, group work, family therapy, etc.

Part 3 ends the book by providing examples of good practice in organisations supporting people bereaved through a substance-related death.

Some key characteristics of the book

The book covers new ground in how to work with unfinished business and the associated guilt and blame, that are a common characteristic of these bereavements; as well as using the first ever research into how helpful counselling is for this group of bereaved people, that I conducted specifically to inform this book.

There is a theme of challenging unhelpful aspects of contemporary mainstream culture in the UK: the stigmatising of substance use, especially drug-use, and the associated bereavements, as well as the view that any bereavement is taboo and that bereaved people should ‘move on’ or ‘get over it’. Another theme is addressing the importance of working with the inevitable difference and diversity that exists amongst people bereaved this way.

Additionally, we promote the importance of referral and joint working, as any one practitioner or agency may well not be able to meet the variety and complexity of needs that many of these bereaved people have, which we detail in the book.

I appreciate what I assume has been your interest in our work. The book is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishing, who are a small independent publisher so struggle to get their books noticed. Whilst you may well not buy the book unless relevant to your work, we would welcome any sharing across networks to encourage individuals to access the support they need.

About the Author

Peter Cartwright is a BACP Registered and Accredited Counsellor working in south-east London, who has a specialism in substance-related bereavements through his work as a counsellor, author, trainer and researcher. He is the lead author and editor of Supporting People Bereaved through a Drug- or Alcohol-Related Death.

Categories: News & BlogPublished On: March 24, 2022

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