10 Helpful Tips for Talking with Children about the Drug-Related Death of a Loved One

Talking to kids about death can feel tricky and overwhelming.  Talking to them about a stigmatized and confusing death, like a suicide or a drug-relate death, that can feel even trickier and even more overwhelming!  With International Overdose Awareness Day coming up this week (August 31st, to be exact) we thought it might be nice to provide some tips for those of you struggling to talk to kids about a drug-related death.  We have two of our fantastic social-worker-grief-friends, Sarah Montgomery and Susan Coale of the Chesapeake Life Center here to help us out:
Sarah and Susan 2 You may remember Sarah and Susan from their stint on Dancing With The Stars  their WYG post with rockstar tips for talking with kids about suicide or when we told you about their fantastic book that helps parents, caregivers, and teachers supporting kids after a death by suicide.  We couldn’t be more excited to have them back.

Take it away, Sarah and Susan!

The number of overdose deaths in the US is at an all-time high.  As counselors specializing in grief and traumatic death, we see first-hand how drug overdose deaths impact families and children and how loss-survivors struggle to reconcile this loss.  It can be difficult to wrap our minds around the idea of explaining a drug-related death to children.  Our instinct is to protect our children from heart-breaking situations, so a part of us would like to avoid having these conversations.  And overdose death is sudden and complicated by nature.  Similar to suicide death, we often feel that the overdose death was preventable.  This can create a myriad of feelings in both adults and children including: guilt, anger, blame, worry, social isolation, and anguish about “why”.

If the person who died is a family member or friend, the child may not have been aware that she was struggling with an “addiction”.  Like other brain disorders, substance use disorder is an “inside” disease and is often not talked about because of the stigma and possible judgment from others.  Children often do not know that an adult has sought help or treatment for the disease, that the treatment was not helping, or that an adult had “relapsed” or begun to use the drug again.   Other children may be well aware of their loved one’s struggle or erratic behavior.

So how to begin?  Below are guidelines we can use to address this sensitive topic:

  • Take care of yourself first: The airplane analogy is an apt one — put on your own “oxygen” mask before placing one on your child.  Take a couple of deep breaths and give yourself time to collect your thoughts. Think of this initial conversation as laying the groundwork, allowing the child to ask questions and exploring what the child is thinking. It is not the time to share all of the available information.
  • Start the conversation: It may be uncomfortable and difficult to know where to start, but take the step.  Sometimes beginning with a question is easier.  For example, “What have you been thinking about Matt’s death?” invites the child to share what is going on inside. It is important that the child learns about the circumstances of the death from a caring and reliable source, not inadvertently from others.
  • Name your feelings but try to keep them in check: Kids will be able to read your face—why is Mommy looking so different? Why is Grandpa shaking?  When we are processing difficult news, we will experience waves of feelings; after all, we are human.  Name the feeling—“I am feeling really sad right now” or “I am feeling confused and I know I am showing it.”  At the same time, kids take their cues from adults, and it can be destabilizing to see a parent extremely emotional.  Stay as calm as possible and take breaks when needed.
  • Stick to routines: This is easier said than done, especially if it is the death of someone vital to your family’s day-to-day life. By definition a traumatic loss disrupts routine, but if you can, keep basics steady –and ask for help from friends or family if you need it.
  • Talk about the person who died in a caring and respectful way: “______” (insert name here) died by an overdose, but this does not define who he or she was.”  Just as a period does not define a sentence, the cause of death does not define a person.  He or she is not “an overdose” but a person who died by an overdose.
  • Keep it clear: Try to use language that is appropriate to your child’s age, level of understanding and previous knowledge of the situation. For example, younger children need a more concrete explanation of death and overdose: “Death means the body has stopped working” and “An overdose is when someone takes too much of a medicine or the wrong medicine and it makes their body stop working.” Offer as much clarity as possible around drugs of abuse vs. medicine that the doctor prescribes for medical needs. For example, with a prescription drug overdose, “(insert name here) used more of the medication than the doctor prescribed or was safe to use.” Or “addiction is an invisible disease that causes a person to use more (alcohol, medicine or drugs) than is safe and can end in death.” Bear in mind that there is some inherent ambiguity in the words “drug” “medicine” and even “substance.” But again, clarify that not all medicine is bad for us. Teenagers can understand more of the subtleties of language, but you must still keep it clear.
  • Avoid assigning fault and blame: Underline that it is not anyone’s fault that this person died—and that the death is certainly not the child’s fault. In the course of normal development, children experience “magical thinking” which sometimes leads them to see a death as their fault.  Listen for this when your child speaks.  And refrain from blaming anyone for the death—even if you are angry and feel that a friend, doctor or someone else was part of the problem.  This is not the time to share this.
  • Guide children in learning to share appropriately: Children may need assistance in sharing with others what has happened or, in “clinical language”, creating their “own narrative.” Let them know that sharing does not mean telling everything—it is not a lie to keep some areas private.  They may need guidance in answering questions from peers or community.  For example, in response to the question, “How did your aunt die?” some children may want to say, “It is private” while others may want to use language such as, “She died from taking too many drugs” or “She died from an accidental overdose” or “She had an inside illness.”
  • Remember, it is not a “one-and-done” when talking about traumatic loss: Let children know that they can ask questions and that you may not have all the answers, but that any questions are OK to ask. Most children process a little nugget at a time and will need to ask and re-ask questions.   Take the time to gently correct inaccurate information.
  • Model self-care: “When I am sad and upset, I like to exercise and talk with friends … what helps you?” Encourage kids to draw, talk, dance—anything to move their feelings from entirely internal to external. Teach them that asking for help is a sign of strength.  For example, when a child is in a challenging sports tournament, music competition, or advanced Greek exam, she needs some extra guidance or coaching, right?  Well, let them know that asking for assistance in any difficult time is healthy and strong.

Be sure to remind the child that if they themselves ever struggle with their feelings, there is always help available. You might help them to identify the people around them who are available to lend a listening ear during difficult times.  It is also helpful to work with them to discover what safe activities bring them a sense of comfort and control when they are distressed, such as drawing pictures of their feelings, petting their cat, or sleeping with a beloved stuffed animal.

Substance abuse and overdose loss are complicated topics and difficult even for sensitive and attuned parents.  Please reach out to a mental health provider if you need additional support or if you have on-going concerns.  Remember, it is a sign of health to ask for guidance in times of need.

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March 28, 2017

12 responses on "10 Helpful Tips for Talking with Children about the Drug-Related Death of a Loved One"

  1. My boyfriend died of an overdose 3 days after our daughter turned one month old. She looks exactly like him. It hurts me so much living without him. Our daughter is almost 5 months old now and watching her grow and experience her “firsts” should be exciting but instead I want to cry because he’s not here with us. One day I will have to tell her what happened and I’m dreading it. I’m so happy he left me a big part of him in our daughter but I wish he would have taken the help he was being offered so he could have lived. I miss him so much this is very hard for me especially with our daughter looking just like him. I cry almost every day I wish he was still here with me and our beautiful baby girl.

  2. Hi I lost my husband justo over 4 months ago and we have a 3 yrs old son and I just gave birth to our daughter 2 wks ago. It’s been the worst few months for me and I was trying to be as string for Finn our son. He is lost without his daddy and still looks for him. I try avoid talking to him about his dad. I really don’t know what to do with Finn – should I wait till he is older and understanda more or sit him down and share memories. Finn seen his dad laid out said his goodbyes and when asks is told he is in heaven. But I no finn believes he will be home some day.. I’m just lost

  3. I never told my daughter she was 4 when her dad died. Should I tell her and how do I do that without hurting her

    • Lisa, there is no right or wrong answer to that question. That said, when children find out later somehow from another person or from finding the information elsewhere, there can often be resentment when adults hid the truth from them. This is a personal decision for you to make, knowing yourself and your daughter and your relationship, but even if a lot of time has passed it will be best that she hear it from you rather than find out another way.

      In telling her, the above tips are a great place to start. But you will also want to be prepared to help her understand why you didn’t tell her before. She was only 4 and understanding death itself is complex at that age. Kids can get very defensive when parents try to “protect” them by hiding things (especially teens and, from your other comment, I think your daughter may be a teen now), but helping her understand that you want her to know the truth now that she is old enough to understand may help to balance this. Keep in mind that there might be some hurt or anger at first, this is a conversation that can happen not just once to help cope with those feelings together. It is okay to acknowledge that you understand that this may make her feel hurt or angry. This could make her worry/wonder if there are other secrets you are hiding from her, so having a conversation about that might also be important so she knows there are not other things she should be worrying about. If your daughter sees a counselor, it would be good to talk with that person first to discuss telling her, as the might have some good perspective and be able to provide support. If you decided telling her is not what you want to do, I would encourage you to be prepared if a time comes that she learns the truth. In many cases parents think this will never happen, so when it does they are caught off guard and unprepared to talk about. It is important that you are prepared to discuss it if and when it does arise. Take care.

  4. I lost my fiancé to an accidental overdose in March. We have a daughter together that was 9 months at the time of his dreath. I have time to think about what I am going to say but I get so much anxiety about it. I don’t even know where to begin ??

    • Samantha, please know that there are grief centers for kids all over the country and they are designed specifically to help support kids through grief, and can also be a huge help in supporting you through explaining things to your daughter and helping you know how to support her. Remember, the way her father died does not take away from how much he loved her and the person he was. Yes, you will share this difficult piece of information with her and it will be hard, but you will also share with her all the wonderful things about him. She will get to know him through you and will know that he was far more than what ultimately took his life. I know that doesn’t make that tough conversation any less tough, but I say it to remember that this is one very small piece of so many things she will learn from you about her dad. It does not need to be the one that defines her father for her.

  5. Actually looking or grief support or myself – I lost my son to an accidental overdose on 1-3-15.

  6. Thank you both for all these wonderful suggestions! So tough for kids to work through this kind of grief…

  7. Good article with helpful tips. Thanks

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