Everybody knows someone affected by substance use. Every day, 70 people die from alcohol-related causes in the UK, and behind every tragic death there are friends and family left behind.
Last month SHAAP, Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs, Salvation Army and The University of Stirling launched the powerful, hard-hitting ‘See Beyond’ campaign to shine a light on the devastating impact the loss of a life to alcohol or drugs has on those left behind.
In this blog, Zoë, who lost her mum to alcohol use and has featured in the campaign, shares her story about why she decided to take part in the campaign and how she hopes it will help others with their alcohol-related bereavement.
When I was asked if I was interested in taking part in the See Beyond Scotland campaign, I was immediately drawn to the idea. I saw the therapeutic value in writing a letter to my mum, a format which would allow me to try to put into words the sadness, fear and staggering emotional pain I have endured since her death. I thought that putting my feelings into words might help me in the processing of her rapid decline, and of her eventual painful and traumatic death from the multiple organ failure associated with her alcohol use.
However, this was not my only motivation for taking part in the project. I was also very keen to take the opportunity to talk openly and publicly about the way my mum died, as I am absolutely passionate about challenging the stigma that can surround losing a loved one in this way. I work in the bereavement sector, and every day I see people ashamed of reaching out for support because they feel their alcohol-related bereavement may be judged as less important, shameful, and something that most definitely should be swept under the carpet. This stigma is everywhere – the code of silence at the funeral, the awkward looks and avoidance that takes place when talking to new people about the circumstances of your loved one’s death. The euphemisms. The pity. And sometimes the disdain.
My mum’s alcohol use didn’t start in earnest until her middle-age
My mum’s alcohol use didn’t start in earnest until her middle-age, and my family, friends and community watched with me as she morphed from a vibrant, loving, funny, warm human being into a desperate and lonely shadow of her former self. The skirmishes with the police, the multiple regular hospital visits, and the very public decline of her ability to function was accompanied by the deterioration of her many meaningful and supportive relationships. Without exception, her illness withdrew her from the friends and family that she loved.
As I travelled those final months with her, I encountered repeated institutional stigma when trying to secure the care and support she needed as she was dying, and a notable lack of help for me as I was left spinning hopelessly in the aftermath. Make no mistake – the loved ones of a person who dies an alcohol-related death are survivors of trauma that stretches way before the death certificate is issued, and we need compassion, understanding, and in some cases specialist support.
Taking part in the See Beyond campaign
I was a little anxious before I sat down to write the See Beyond letter, feeling concerned about some of the difficult feelings it might bring up for me, but in actual fact I really enjoyed writing it. For me, one of the most important aspects was to portray a realistic description of the complex, difficult and sometimes opposing emotions associated with living with a loved one trapped in addiction. My mum’s behaviour made my life extremely difficult and drove me to the edge of sanity on many occasions; the panic that had previously accompanied the ringing of the phone slowly morphed into hope that someone was ringing to let me know that she was dead, and that the misery (hers and mine) had finally come to an end. Having these feelings is normal and isn’t mutually exclusive to loving the person with every fibre of your being and being utterly heartbroken when they do eventually go.
I found the filming process involved in the campaign a little more challenging than the writing of the letter. Taking part in an exercise like this, no matter how supportive the process, involves exposing the most deeply held parts of your emotional pain, with more than one attempt at recording the audio and video keeping you in a pretty vulnerable place until the task is finished. I got through it though with the compassionate support of those facilitating the process, and if my letter or video helps even one person reach out for support with their alcohol-related bereavement it’ll have been a job well done.
What we can do to help
What I’m hoping people will take from See Beyond: Scotland is a sense of the people behind the frightening statistics. The fact that one person’s alcohol-related death, a tragedy in itself, creates a ripple effect that forever changes the lives of those left behind. But more than anything, that these deaths were preventable. What we can do as individuals to help prevent them is to reach out with a compassionate ear, not just to the bereaved, but also to those currently living with a loved one’s problematic drinking, and to those who are living in active addiction, or in recovery. Only by breaking the silence with honest conversations will we create an environment where people feel emotionally safe to reach out for help.
Written by Zoë Williamson.
This blog was published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alcohol Health Alliance or its members.