Substance-related bereavement

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Don’t worsen substance-related bereavement, professionals urged

A new set of good practice guidelines to support people who have lost a family member or friend through drugs or alcohol has been launched by the University of Bath, in partnership with the University of Stirling. Both the death itself and the previous substance use ‘may be considered taboo’, says Bereaved by substance abuse, with people often encountering ‘poor, unkind or stigmatising responses’ that can exacerbate their grief and increase alienation.

The guidelines are designed for use by any professionals whose work brings them into contact with people bereaved through substance use, and are based on interviews with more than 100 bereaved adults – the largest known qualitative research sample – as well as practitioners. Although some bereaved people did report positive experiences, the report identifies ‘much poor practice’ through practitioners not fully understanding the issues involved.

The document sets out a number of key messages alongside extensive good practice recommendations, developed by a working group that included treatment professionals and police along with a paramedic, GP, funeral director and others.

Interviewees reported issues such as guilt at not having been able to help, the stress of living with the substance use prior to the death, and even the attitude of the press. People also reported being daunted and bewildered by the ‘myriad’ different individuals and organisations they encountered after the death.

Establishing a single point of support is a key recommendation, along with treating every bereaved person as an individual and always showing kindness and compassion. This, however, should be genuine, the document stresses, and cautions against ‘trying to too hard’ and appearing fake. It also encourages joint working and stresses that, ‘Whatever your role, do what you can to protect the bereaved person’s wellbeing in a difficult and stressful situation.’

‘The unique combination of circumstances surrounding the death of somebody from alcohol or drug use can produce particularly severe bereavements,’ said lead researcher Dr Christine Valentine. ‘A kinder and more compassionate approach can make a real difference. Our hope is that these guidelines – developed for practitioners by practitioners – will provide a much needed blueprint for how services can respond to these bereaved people.’

Bereaved through substance use: guidelines for those whose work brings them into contact with adults bereaved after a drug or alcohol-related death at www.bath.ac.uk