In the wake of the death of Bobbi Kristina Brown, Whitney Houston’s daughter in July was this piece in The Telegraph which raises an important point about addiction.
Back in 2009, she told Winfrey how she’d grappled with drug problems for most of her career: “I had so much money and so much access to what I wanted. I didn’t think about the singing part anymore. I was looking for my young womanhood.”
It must have been incredibly difficult for her as a young woman battling the disease of drug addiction in the public eye, but at the same time, it would have had a huge impact on her daughter Bobbi Kristina.
It’s unknown whether Brown had addictions of her own or if they contributed to her death in anyway, but it’s undeniable that it would been incredibly difficult for her to lose her mum to an addiction, at the age of 19.
Her situation is strikingly similar to that of Peaches Geldof, whose mother Paula Yates died of an accidental overdose in 2000 at the age of 41. She was home alone with her youngest daughter, Tiger Lily, who was aged just four.
At the time her second eldest daughter Peaches was 11-years-old.
Fourteen years later, Peaches sadly died in similar circumstances: in her own home, with her youngest son Phaedra in the house. An inquest found that heroin played “a role” in the 25-year-old’s untimely passing.
Elizabeth Burton-Phillips, CEO of charity DrugFAM, explains that children who lose their parents to addictions are often dealing with very different circumstances to those dealing with other types of bereavement:
It’s a double bereavement process
“When you have someone in the family who has an addiction that’s a bereavement in itself. You lose the mother or father they were. Then there’s the dreadful double whammy with death. It’s what’s called the second bereavement.”
This means that people who lose their parents to addictions go through a double grief process, and when their parent dies, they may have a lot of conflicting feelings.
Dr Christine Valentine, a research associate in sociology at Bath University who has written extensively on bereavement and substance abuse, says: “One of the difficulties is to do with having lived with somebody who has been taking drugs, as often it happens for a few years so by the time the person dies family members particularly children are very worn down. It obviously makes it even harder and more stressful.”
But what adds to these feelings is a sense of stigma.
“They’ve suffered bereavement but because of the stigma attached to this kind of death, somehow the family gets tainted. People think, they must have been complicit and they should have prevented it. Sometimes it’s even within families. The person can then feel they don’t have the right to grieve or be supported.”
In some cases, family members actually forbid a child from telling their friends how their parent died, or the child may impose those rules themselves.
‘It was like a dirty secret’
*Sally lost her mum to alcohol addiction when she was in her thirties and her mum was just 63. She tells me that she refused to tell anyone how her mum died, and only now is starting to tell people the truth.
“It was like a dirty secret really. I didn’t want them to think badly of her. It was just a continuation of how when I was younger, I didn’t invite friends round because I wasn’t sure what state she would be in.”
Now Sally volunteers for charity COAP (Children of Addicted Parents and People), which helps children whose parents have addictions, and wishes she’d had that sort of support when she was struggling with her mum.
“It would have helped being able to speak to someone going through the same thing. I could have realised it wasn’t our fault [as her children], and we’d tried as hard as we could with her. But as it was, we all kept it to ourselves.”
Talk about it
That is one of the biggest problems that people face when their loved ones die of addictions. Burton-Phillips, whose charity now runs workshops for young people in this situation, says: “What we’re trying to do is give them a voice and hear what they have to say in our workshops.
“Many young people are locked into the silence of grief and the embarrassment of talking about it to other people. Often it needs to be freed up so they can move on with their grief.
“It’s much easier to say ‘my mum had breast cancer’ and ‘my dad died of a tumour’, but I think more than anything they need the opportunity just to talk about the mother or father that was the person and not the addict. The good times but also to process the difficult times.”
Another issue can be guilt. Dr Valentine says that in these situations, young people can often feel they’re partly to blame for their parent’s death, as they view it all as self-inflicted:
“It’s coping with the sense of guilt, and this sense that the death could have been prevented, especially as they’re often young deaths. But it’s a normal reaction that everybody feels and that’s something to try and tackle because they’re by no means to blame at all.”
Tear down the stigma
What’s worse is that post-bereavement, families are often so focused on the person who died that they may not give enough attention or support to the children. In that situation, the child may bottle all their feelings in – or even go on to repeat their parent’s mistakes.
Sally says that her elder brother followed a pattern of their mother’s addiction – though he has now been sober for 10 years – and that she almost fell into the same problem.
“I would sit at home with my two sons drinking a bottle at night and then think, ‘what am I doing? Is this genetic? I need to sort myself out.’ Now I don’t drink as much as I used and it all just makes me think a lot more about alcohol myself. I understand the dangers a lot more.”
Of course, losing a parent to an addiction doesn’t always result in situations like this. It can cause feelings of isolation, sleep problems, and other health problems such as anxiety and panic attacks.
But what really matters is that in all situations, children are given the help they deserve, and that no one is left to struggle with a parent’s death alone.
As Burton-Phillips says: “Reach out. Get help. Seek support. Don’t bottle it up because it’s so important to talk about it. Tear down the stigma and walls of silence. It’s really such an important thing to do because the longer you hold it in, the more difficult it is in the long-term to actually cope with it.”
If you have been affected by any issues in this article, contact COAP or get in touch with Childline on 0800 1111
One of the strongest motivators for me to quit drinking, and in doing so help stop the inter-generational transmission of the issue, was my kids. I did not want them to grow up as the children of an addict and risk losing me, or their father, early to the substance I had effectively prioritised over them.