Finding Meaning in Tragedy: Addiction, Trauma, and Activism

November 24, 2019 Kristance Harlow
Person hand on their face

Turning grief into activism is a powerful way to process and give meaning to the pain of traumas like the death of a loved one who struggled with addiction. It is on the heels of tragedy that we can make voices of change be heard.

Grief is complicated, individually experienced, and universal. And humans are not the only creatures on this planet who mourn their dead. Scientists continue to debate how complex the grief of non-human animals is, but the evidence points to many species grieving the loss of their kin and mates.

For millennia, scholars have been searching for a way to explain the depths of human grief. Plato and Socrates mused on what death and dying meant and philosophized about the grieving man. Sigmund Freud, often considered the father of modern psychology, began psychological research into mourning in his 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia.” In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published her influential book, On Death and Dying. The popular five stages of grief were born from her work.

Social Media Affects How We Grieve

Loss can be traumatic. Whether expected or sudden, close or removed but symbolic, grief can take hold when we lose someone or something significant. We mourn and ritualize loss as a means to process it. There are culturally distinct rituals for mourning families; processing the emotions that come with grief can be guided by these rituals. These customs help us find meaning in our grief, even when we don’t consciously recognize it.

As social media continues to become a more ingrained aspect of modern life, people are developing new rituals to mark tragic loss. The social norms of these rituals (such as posting photos, posting on the wall of the recently deceased, or sharing a status that talks about special memories) is always in flux. But one norm that is constant in the age of social media is our immediate collective knowledge of loss. There is an urgency to information and the negotiation of emotions in a shared space. This immediacy is changing the old social norms of letting some time pass before talking about causes of death.

There is another related but distinct way people sometimes process grief, and that’s by turning tragedy into a call for activism. Smithsonian Magazine published a powerful piece titled “The March for Our Lives Activists Showed Us How to Find Meaning in Tragedy.” The author, Maggie Jones, describes the instant response students had because they knew “time was not on their side.” With on-demand information, the collective conscience quickly moves from one tragedy to the next as new headlines take over. These Parkland students were not being inconsiderate in their quick call to activism, they were creating meaning from tragedy and were bolstered by the collective grief that took shape immediately, in large part because of social media.

The Trauma of Drug-Related Deaths

Across the United States, drug overdose deaths have been on the rise, particularly those involving synthetic narcotics (primarily fentanyl). Overdoses caused by the most commonly used drugs are tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And deaths due to overdose are underreported and misclassified. The stigma that surrounds addiction and the prejudice against people with Substance Use Disorder (SUD) relegates many overdose deaths to the world of whispers and rumors.

My life has been marked by traumatic losses due to the effects of SUD. People close to me have overdosed, some survived and some died. I’ve also lost people to complications due to a lifetime struggle with Alcohol Use Disorder. Only recently have I seen these losses become conversation starters, where people will openly talk about the battles once fought by the brave folks who lost their lives to disease. Maybe that means we’re turning a corner in addiction stigma. Maybe we’re opening the door for people to feel less shame in talking about their struggles while they still have a chance to change the course of their lives. We can pay homage to our lost loved ones by sharing their stories and removing the stigma that may have kept them from receiving the help they needed.

Recently a person in recovery told me that their co-workers do not know about their history and they will never tell them because multiple times they have made comments like “drug addicts are scum and should be shot” and “addicts are worse than rabid dogs.” The negative perceptions of people with SUD grated on this person and fed their alcoholism in a detrimental way. They believe they are simply a bad person who does not deserve help because addiction cannot be cured. This is a falsehood perpetuated by ignorant and fearful people.

When we lose people and we share the entirety of our memories about them, from childhood to work life, and we share the truth of their battles with addiction, we are combating these dangerous preconceptions and prejudice.

Overdoses aren’t the only way addiction kills. According to, “drug-related deaths have more than doubled since 2000 [and] there are more deaths, illness, and disabilities from substance use than from any other preventable health condition.” SUD is a diagnosable and treatable condition that deserves as much recognition as any other health issue for which there are awareness campaigns and funds devoted to find treatments to save and improve lives. Substance use disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental and behavioral disorder.

Tragedy as a Call for Activism

In a world where so many people process aspects of their grief online and where tragic events unfold live for millions of people around the world at the same time, finding meaning in tragedy is necessary for our mental health. When we experience trauma, we are at risk of developing post-traumatic stress. Trauma can manifest as a strong psychological or emotional response to a distressing or disturbing event or experience. We can be traumatized when we lose someone; we can even be traumatized when we hear that someone we care for went through a terrifying ordeal. If our ability to cope is overwhelmed, that is trauma. When someone develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), their sense of self in relation to the world around them has become damaged. Trauma has the potential to shatter our beliefs about our place in the world and our sense of safety.

Finding meaning in tragedy can go a long way in preventing the development of post-traumatic stress and can be a marker in recovery from PTSD.

In our changing experience of bereavement, tragedy is a call for activism. It is on the heels of tragedy that we can make voices of change be heard. Tragedy creates space in which people listen. Frequently, we want to connect with others when we experience loss; sharing grief reduces its intensity. Turning grief into activism is a powerful way to process and give meaning to the pain of traumas like the death of someone who struggled with addiction.

First published on The Fix.

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