When a child dies from overdose

When a child dies from overdose

Note: Today in Florida my son attends two funerals, both for young men. This post is for survivors.


Recently, two mothers who each lost a son to overdose invited me to lunch – just to sit and talk.  We sat overlooking a sunny harbor where boats breezed by. Their sons had died within weeks of each other.  They even had the same name.  Until the boys’ deaths, the two women hadn’t known each other well.  Now they would forever share that unfathomable space where a parent prays never to be…facing life after the loss of a child.

Openly, they spoke of their grief, still raw after just two years.  What they talked about most was the reaction of relatives, colleagues and close friends.

“If my son had died of cancer,” the mother said, “neighbors would have poured into my house with hot soup and dinners for the week.  Instead, what I got was mostly nothing, not even a visit. I guess people just don’t know what to say.”

One close friend, after a year had passed since the young man’s funeral, simply snapped, “Isn’t it time you got over it?”

Another offered, “Others have it worse than you.”

And perhaps the harshest of all were those who said nothing but sat tight-lipped, believing the young men had brought it on themselves.

I asked these mothers, what should we say?  How can we combat a despair so profound that no one can fully comprehend unless experiencing it?

Some might respond, it’s the same as when a child dies from any tragedy.  I think not.  Addiction carries its own peculiar hell for survivors.  Stigma, shame and isolation enshroud the family the same as in life.  Mothers are loathe to share their sorrow for fear of being shunned or – worse -even blamed for their child’s death.  They fear that revelation will prompt the banal, harsh and hateful responses that are far too common.

“Say you are sorry,” they both said. “Say my son’s name.  Sit with me.  Listen.”

And so I did.  I said Daniel’s name.  It was all I could do.  It was everything.



16 Replies to “When a child dies from overdose”

  1. This is such a poignant story, beautifully written, that pulls the curtain away from the solitary sorrow of mothers grieving the loss of a child caught in the death trap of addiction. Thank you, dear Lisa.

  2. Thanks for the dialogue around this. I found the same kind of isolation after my brother’s suicide. I believe that most people simply don’t know what to say and so they don’t say anything. Maybe that’s better than saying the wrong thing or trying to cheer one out of my the grief that needs to be processed. Luckily, there were about three people who were able to hold the space for me and that was all I needed.

  3. Lisa, thank you for sharing your heart with us. You have gently raised a light for others to be more loving in the face of such sorrow. There are some situations in families that alienate. Addiction is one. Mental illness is one. I have experienced the challenge of a family member with mental illness. It has broken relationships (between myself and the person as well as relatives and friends). It is so difficult to explain, I tend to just suffer in silence and try not to talk about it. In this way, I relate. Thank you again.

    1. Stacey there are compassionate people who understand. Find them and share your heartaches.
      You deserve that support, as much as your loved ones who are ill.

    1. Thank you for being a patient teacher Dale.
      I think of you and Daniel more than you know, and not just when I see a rainbow.
      Love to you.

  4. There is nothing in this life that compares to the loss of a child. My oldest sister lost a child at age five from Neuroblastoma. She lost her child 40 some years ago and to this day it can still bring her to her knees. She told me once that the hardest thing was other’s reactions, especially other parents who just couldn’t handle being around her – much less imagine enduring such a tragedy. I agree, to parents who lose children to overdose, the stakes are much higher. But I have seen parents heal from the loss only by virtue of partnering with others who have had the experience and who understand the tragedy didn’t start with the overdose. I don’t have children, but I have tremendous compassion for that level of pain. I also have great hope for the human spirit and our capacity to listen and connect with others. Lisa, thanks for sharing this story. I will always have great admiration for you.

    1. Wiezie, thank you for writing to me. Sometimes the stories are so overwhelming that all I can do is try to absorb some of another’s pain.
      Perhaps it takes some away from them.
      We’re here to love each other.
      Of that I am sure.