A grief that shrinks : alcohol and drug deaths. A personal reflection

It is eleven years ago today that the ultra-talented Amy Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning at the age of 27. She is best remembered for her famous songs’ ‘Rehab’ and ‘Stronger Than me.’ I first saw Amy on the Jools Holland Show early in her career and could immediately recognise a talent which went beyond mere ordinariness or description.

Amy Winehouse did not have an easy life with periods of drug and alcohol addiction, mental health and relationship challenges. Her album ‘Back to Back’ became the UK’s bestselling album of the 21st century albeit for a short time.

I have been thinking a lot about Amy this week partly because of her music but more directly because of her story and the grief and loss that results in those left behind following such a traumatic and sad death.

In my own personal and professional life, I have witnessed first-hand the raw reality of the way in which alcohol and drugs can change a person and devastate a family. The death of a loved one to addiction empties a person like nothing else and so often that emptiness is filled with questions and guilt, with a sense of ‘if only’ and of regret, and with a continual self-examination as to whether you could or should have done more.

I have always admired the work of Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs. https://www.sfad.org.uk . I was therefore very pleased this week to have had the chance to meet a colleague from that organisation. They do a wide range of work including a focus on bereavement support and most of it is undertaken at local level. When someone in your family is affected by alcohol or drugs one of the main things you feel is a sense of isolation and aloneness and the way in which SFAD and others can help connect you to others, to limit the isolation, to support through mutual understanding and connection becomes invaluable.

My primary reason for speaking with SFAD this past week was to form links between their bereavement work and the work of Scotland’s National Bereavement Charter. The Charter, whose organising group, I am honoured to chair, is growing from strength to strength with new resources being developed all the time to help anyone across Scotland be better supported in their grief and loss. The aim of the Charter is to ensure that anyone who requires support and care following a bereavement is able to access that and that Scotland becomes a world leader in a human rights-based approach to grief and bereavement. Those who lose loved ones through drug and alcohol deaths have an especially hard journey of grief and loss and it will be a mark of the Charter’s progress as to whether or not we are able to make their journey any easier.

One critical dimension experienced by so many who experience the death of someone to alcohol and drugs is the societal stigma that often accompanies such a death. Someone once described this to me as ‘furtive grieving’, her felt sense of having to hide the cause and reason for the death of her son to a heroin overdose because she felt that others would dismiss both him but also her pain, grief and loss as somehow ‘self-inflicted.’  She told me it took a long time for her to stop saying her young son died of a heart attack and to be open about the reasons for his death and that that openness helped her in her grieving.

In a heart-felt plea in the media this week, David Strang, the chair of the Scottish Drugs Deaths Taskforce spoke about the newly published “Changing Lives” report which makes 20 recommendations and 139 action points that it says will help turn around Scotland’s record drug death numbers. The shocking and sad statistical truth is that in 2020, 1,339 people died as a result of a drug overdose. The report calls for the creation of a national stigma action plan because of the reality that societal stigma and discrimination results in not just personal and family trauma but in unnecessary death. When deaths do happen, that stigma continues to re-enforce discrimination and makes grieving and bereavement all the harder and more painful.

Grief shrinks you. It makes a person small in their body. It shrivels up hope and dreams. It’s emptiness echoes with a silence no sound could ever soothe. Grieving the loss of a loved one to drugs and alcohol makes many feel like they need to hide their grief and so makes bereavement unnecessarily traumatic. We desperately need to transform cultural and societal attitudes to alcohol and drugs not only so that lives can be saved but also that when loss does happen grief can be freed from the shackles of societal disapproval and discrimination. The tragic legacy of someone like Amy Winehouse should be not only her amazing music but an urgent need to end the stigma around all drugs and alcohol deaths, to encourage society to start a mature debate on all the issues without the stance of moral superiority that often occurs, and importantly by so doing to let loved ones who grieve be able to make that journey in openness without societal stigma.

Donald Macaskill

Last Updated on 23rd July 2022 by donald.macaskill