Guidelines to support people bereaved by substance use

New guidelines to support people bereaved by alcohol or drugs have been released by a University of Bath and University of Stirling collaboration. The guidelines result from a three year project which found those left bereaved after a drug or alcohol related death often receive poor, unkind or stigmatising responses which can exacerbate their grief.

Download the guidelines ‘Bereaved by substance use’ [PDF]


The guidelines identify the complexity of substance related deaths and the myriad of different individuals and organisations they encounter after. As such better cross-agency working could improve the experience of the bereaved, alongside improved understanding and practice by practitioners.

Lead researcher, Dr Christine Valentine from the Centre for Death & Society, said:

“The unique combination of circumstances surrounding the death of somebody from alcohol or drug use can produce particularly severe bereavements.

“The fact that many of us feel uncomfortable or unsure about how to respond to these bereaved people, how we talk about these deaths and the limited support offered, are all symptomatic of the fact that, so far, this group, though sizeable, remains hidden and neglected by research, policy and practice.

“Our research has found that, while poor responses from services adds to their distress, 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.”

Among the report’s key messages it suggests:

•Always show kindness and compassion when interacting with a bereaved person. First impressions make a huge impression and can greatly help or hinder a person’s response to grief.
•Think about the language you use. Avoid using labels like ‘addict’; instead talk about drug use and alcohol use. Use language that mentions the person before describing their behaviour. Avoid saying ‘I know how you feel’ and ‘You shouldn’t blame yourself’.
•Treat every bereaved person as an individual. Do not make assumptions about the person who died and about how this kind of death may affect those left behind and how they will react.
•Whatever your role, do what you can to protect the bereaved person’s well-being in a difficult and stressful situation. Do not be afraid of speaking to them about the death – it is often worse when it is not acknowledged. Ask the bereaved person what will help and what they want of you. Be willing to really listen.
•Be aware of and work with other organisations dealing with this kind of death, so you can advise bereaved people about what they need to do, who they need to see next and what is going on. There may, for example, need to be a post mortem, inquest or police investigation.