Grieving in the wake of an overdose death


FORT WAYNE — For those left grieving after the fatal overdose of a loved one, the stigma surrounding addiction can impede the healing process.

A new support group is now offering help for people who have lost a loved one to substance use disorder. Visiting Nurse, a nonprofit that provides end-of-life and palliative care, launched the Healing Pathways Support Group in November at the Peggy F. Murphy Community Grief Center.

The center is the region’s only free-standing center dedicated to adults who are grieving. It offers individual grief counseling sessions, grief programming and grief-specific groups. All programs are provided at no charge and are open to any adult who has suffered the loss of a loved one.

Dealing with the stigma

The opioid epidemic has rocked the country in recent years, and northeast Indiana has been no exception. According to the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health, 126 deaths resulted from drug overdoses in 2017 — an increase of 70 percent from the previous year.

The stigma surrounding the death of a person with substance use disorder often prevents grieving loved ones from getting the support they need, David Wust, bereavement coordinator for Visiting Nurse, said.

Those who have lost a loved one to addiction might feel shame, he said. Substance use disorder is widely misunderstood, and society often blames those who suffer from the disease for lack of self-control.

In addition to the stigma, a sudden death resulting from a drug overdose is shocking for loved ones, especially if they didn’t know about the addiction.

The Healing Pathways Support Group aims to reach people who aren’t getting the help they need.

“We feel that this is a group of untouched people because of the stigma that’s attached. They are in need of support. They’re not getting it from their own family members, they’re not getting it from the community. Oftentimes, they’re disenfranchised and have unresolved grief,” Wust said.

Typically, support groups start out small and grow as word spreads, he said. However, eight people turned out for the initial meeting, and he sees a great potential for growth.

Scope of the epidemic

In conjunction with the launch of the support group, Visiting Nurse is hosting a speaker series on substance use disorder called “Everyone’s Epidemic.” In the first part of the four-part series, Susie Cisney of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health gave a presentation on the origin and impact of the epidemic locally.

For years, physicians and dentists have prescribed opioids to treat pain, she said. Many people became “accidentally addicted” after being prescribed opioids for sports injuries, knee replacements and routine cesarean sections.

The medical community now understands that, in most cases, opioids shouldn’t be prescribed for long-term use because of their risk of addiction. In recent years, prescriptions for the powerful painkillers have decreased sharply.

“In 2014, the pendulum swung and we said, ‘No more pain medicine,’” said Dr. Carolyn Greer, medical director of the Bowen Center Recovery Center.

Many patients who were addicted to their prescribed opioids turned to illegal drugs like heroin because they were cheaper than buying prescription painkillers on the street. Heroin is frequently laced with an even more powerful opioid, fentanyl.

This can be deadly because many users believe that they are purchasing heroin and don’t realize that they are purchasing fentanyl — which often results in overdose deaths, according to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.

In addition to taking lives, the opioid epidemic has impacted public health, families and the local economy.

Cisney said the opioid epidemic is closely related to the spread of infectious diseases, including HIV, hepatitis A and hepatitis C. Between 2008 and 2012, there was an almost 800 percent increase in hepatitis C infections in Indiana, she said.

Child abuse and neglect is also closely tied to substance use disorder, she said. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of children placed in foster care in Allen County increased by 60 percent. Among the children served by Indiana Department of Child Services, 60 percent were removed from homes because of substance use disorder, she said.

Hoosiers also feel the economic impact of the opioid epidemic, she said. The crisis costs the state $11 million a day between the costs associated with the criminal justice system, treatment and lost wages.

Going forward

Cisney said she sees positive progress and cooperation happening among local agencies to get people the help they need.

“There is hope,” she said.

Educating people about substance use disorder is important so that the community understands it is a disease, she said. She encourages people to interact with those struggling with substance use disorder with grace.

“We want to see people for their worth, see people where they are,” she said. “We don’t want to judge them, and we don’t want to enable them. We don’t want to condemn them, but we don’t want to pity them either. People have great potential, and we believe if people have the right support around them, that they can pretty much accomplish anything.”

The Healing Pathways Support Group meets 5:30-7:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month at the Peggy F. Murphy Community Grief Center, 5920 Homestead Road, Fort Wayne. For more information, visit or call (260) 435-3261.