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The Children of Overdose Victims

Image via Comfort Zone Camp

How to help the youngest left grieving after an addiction death

Thursday, Aug. 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day. The disease of addiction strikes people of all ages and walks of life, and the impact is often felt by the most vulnerable of survivors. We sat down with Alesia Alexander, CEO of the nonprofit Comfort Zone Camp, to explore what happens to children who lose their parent or caregiver to an overdose.

How does the overdose death of a parent impact a child?
The opioid epidemic is challenging all of our resources in communities. The losses associated with these deaths and near-death events are climbing by the day. Losses are happening in urban and rural settings and across demographics, touching all corners of cities and towns. Children affected by these losses are often dealing with multiple layers of loss, because they may not have known that their loved one was dealing with an addiction or drug-related issues in the first place, and because of the sudden nature of the loss this awareness is challenged or awakened. Many of these deaths are being reported as “accidental,” which can add another layer of confusion, shame, guilt, and source of pain that leave the adults in their life feeling ill-prepared to offer support or to answer their questions about what actually happened or is happening in their family.  

Does a parent’s overdose death increase the chance that the child will suffer from substance abuse?
Addiction studies have long offered correlations between patterns of use and the predictive nature of addiction in families. However, there are no definitive studies that point to a child or teen being predisposed to addiction just based on their parent’s use. It is important to factor in multiple variables in taking a look at this issue. What we do know is that, with support, loss can be a factor for growth and resiliency in the life of a child or teen. It is important to create a network of support and engagement around coping and change to provide context for personal development, family losses, and to promote social skill building overall. 

What are some protective measures we can take to help these children?
We have been building awareness on the need for the country to place a bigger focus on mental wellness as part of building stronger communities and families. This is an important first step. Along with this, we must continue to talk about economic and societal factors and bias that challenge a more real and sustainable response to the pain that many are facing in their daily lives. Children and teens living with loss from any perspective or cause need to be equipped with the tools to make positive choices for their relationships and connections with others. They need structure, boundaries, and safe places to engage the difficult aspects of their lives consistently. We also need to pay attention to building support environments from a whole-person perspective, one that does not focus on just treating and managing physical symptomology and resources. We also need to constantly allow young people living with loss to tell us what they need, and respond to what they are telling us about how loss feels for them in today’s context. Many of these young people are bearing witness to their loved ones’ deaths, and we need to offer support for the trauma that these incidents and events are having on their ability to function.

Comfort Zone Camp is a nonprofit whose camps and programs "help grieving children discover their capacity to heal, grow, and lead more fulfilling lives." Click here to learn more or here to donate.

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