Did my friend feel any pain when he died?
June 26, 2009 2:38 PM   Subscribe

I just found out yesterday that someone that I cared very deeply for died a few years ago from an overdose of heroin. I have a few questions regarding the nature of his death and etiquette surrounding contacting his family.

I apologize for the broad scope of the question; I hope it's not breaking the rules.

I just found out that my best friend in high school died from a heroin overdose a few years ago and I've been very shaken up and upset since I found out, so, selfishly, part of this question is something that I'm hoping will bring me some modicum of comfort.

An important thing here is that we had a falling out at one point and hadn't spoken in 16 years, but I always carried him in my head and my heart and hoped for the day, after enough time passed that we could meet again smile about the old days.


1. I understand that there can only be speculation concerning the specific events of his death. I find it comforting to think that he just blissfully slipped away, but I can't lie to myself if that's not the case and I need to know if it's possible that he had a painful death. I have no experience with heroin, but taking into consideration the fact that heroin is a powerful opiate, what are the chances that he experienced any physical pain post-injection?

2. Would it be appropriate to contact his family with my condolences and to find out where he is buried?

3. It's been 16 years and he died 5 years ago, but it's affecting me as if we had never been apart and he just died yesterday. Is that "normal"? Nothing I do or feel ever fits in to "normal", but these feelings feel so abnormal that I have to question them.

Thanks for any help you can give.
posted by zerokey to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Usually, heroin-overdose victims pass on in their sleep, with no pain....
posted by peewinkle at 2:46 PM on June 26, 2009

Almost always, people are very glad to know that someone else thinks about and misses their dead child or brother. If the dead person's personality changed as he fell into an addiction, it might be good to know that someone else remembers the from better days, too.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:56 PM on June 26, 2009 [5 favorites]

1. I'm no expert, but most likely there was no pain and it was probably quick (assuming he was not on life support, and if he was, he probably would have been brain dead). A close friend's boyfriend died of a heroin overdose and the setting was such that it was assumed he died immediately. I don't want to share details that might disturb someone, but if you want specifics, you can memail me. So, without addressing the likely pain of addiction, it is probably safe to assume it was a painless death.

2. It would be appropriate to contact them, probably more appropriate to send them a card or email so that they can deal with it, and respond, on their own time. A call might be jarring, especially if they've gotten to the point where there's still pain, but they are going on with life. I guess it's fine to ask where he's buried if you plan to visit his grave. It might be kind of awkward for them, my friend's boyfriend's parents were a little weird about that. Everyone who went to the interment knew where he was buried, but his parents didn't like people going to the grave w/o them. There's also the possibility that he was cremated. On second thought, I think I would save this question as a follow-up to their reply, if they do reply, and if there's reason for reply besides the burial question.

3. I think that's normal. You just found out yesterday, so it doesn't matter whether it was 5 years ago or yesterday. I imagine that the fact that he was so young and OD'd hits you really hard. It took me a long time to shake off the feelings after my friend's boyfriend died, and I didn't even know him that well (we hung out and stuff over the 3 years they were together, and he always called me to intervene when they fought, but we weren't close friends). When someone dies from overdose, there's no way to avoid the sadness that comes from such a tragic, senseless death, and also the anger. It seems almost as selfish as suicide, in the self-inflicted sense. It seems that way to me, at least.
posted by necessitas at 3:07 PM on June 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

but taking into consideration the fact that heroin is a powerful opiate, what are the chances that he experienced any physical pain post-injection?

Pain? Overdosing on heroin is probably the single most pleasant death possible. I mean, from the outside it's rather unpleasant and messy, but from the inside it's essentially slipping away while in a wash of bliss and euphoria.
posted by Justinian at 3:19 PM on June 26, 2009

I am an expert on addiction and well, if you have to die, a heroin overdose is the way to go. It is a *painkiller* par excellence, it doesn't cause pain. You get euphoric and then fall asleep and just slowly stop breathing without any awareness that anything has gone wrong. If you do develop any awareness that there's a problem, you are typically so high that it doesn't bother you. That's why it can be so dangerous-- it can make you not care.

The sad thing is that most of these deaths are preventable, because they take hours and if you have the antidote on hand during most of this time, you can usually revive the person. Families and friends of overdose victims might consider becoming activists to make this substance--naloxone-- available over the counter so more people aren't lost.

I bet the parents would be glad to hear from you-- and yeah, email and cards are good and nonintrusive.
posted by Maias at 3:21 PM on June 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

A few years ago, I read in my alumni magazine that one of my college boyfriends had died. We hadn't been in touch for more than 10 years. I sent a short note to his mother, telling her how sorry I was and sharing a few memories. I got a lovely note in return. She did tell me how he died, which I found comforting in that it relieved all my wondering, and she also let me know a few ways that the family and friends were remembering him. It was wonderful closure for me, and she seemed grateful for my note as well.

If you can manage, write a letter by hand rather than email or a Hallmark. It can show an extra degree of care and concern.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 3:38 PM on June 26, 2009

Aw, zerokey, I'm so sorry. I've been where you are. My best friend from high school died unexpectedly when we were in our early 30's. I hadn't seen her in a long time due to a minor falling-out (and the fact that she moved to another continent). But, like you, I always figured eventually she'd come back and we'd pick up our friendship again. But it didn't happen that way, and it took a long time for me to get over feeling guilty that our last conversation was unpleasant. It seems possible (and you can always choose to believe) that your friend's death wasn't too horrific. I hope you can take some comfort in that.

It sounds like you're about the same age as my friend and I were at the time she died. It's kind of a weird time anyway, your thirties, when you're finally settling down and figuring out your world and your place in it, and suddenly everything is turned topsy-turvy for a while. It's normal, so don't question your grief or the amount or sharpness of it. Someone very cruel (or clueless) asked me why I was so upset about my friend's death when I hadn't seen her in years. I didn't have any good response for that, but why should I?? It's MY grief, I'll deal with it without anyone's judgment, thank you. It's ok to be really really really sad and affected by this (if you need permission, there it is).

I think a nice card to his family would be totally appropriate. In fact, they may have wondered at the time why they didn't hear from you, so it might help them as well. I would avoid saying anything like "Well, I always meant to call him, but just never got around to it", and instead mention some of your happy memories of him. I would go ahead and ask about where he is buried (you could use "interred" if "buried" sounds too ... harsh?), although I bet you could find out where he is on your own if you decide not to ask. Most cemeteries have databases with that information, so if you know of a few likely places, you could make some phone calls.

And I wouldn't worry at all about dredging up the past. It's not like his family just forgot that he ever existed. I'm sure they think about him every day anyway.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:54 PM on June 26, 2009

he died 5 years ago, but it's affecting me as if we had never been apart and he just died yesterday. Is that "normal"?

of course it is. this person obviously still mattered to you. save your emotional energy for the other questions you asked (none of which i honestly know how to answer), and don't worry about questioning the validity or appropriateness of your feelings. the shock of this loss, which is unusual in nature, is going to feel abnormal. i don't see the point in not allowing yourself to feel whatever it is you're feeling (nostalgia, regret, frustration, anger, doubt, etc.)

hang in there. using ask mefi for support was a wise move.
posted by Muffpub at 4:01 PM on June 26, 2009

There is nothing abnormal about your feelings.

And I think you should contact the family. People always like to know the impact that a departed loved one had on others. If you contact them with honesty and sincerity, I am sure it will be well received.
posted by Flood at 4:11 PM on June 26, 2009

It's been 16 years and he died 5 years ago, but it's affecting me as if we had never been apart and he just died yesterday

If anybody had asked you about him two days ago, you would have talked of him as a living person. So for you, he died yesterday. Of course it's normal.

I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by clearlydemon at 5:52 PM on June 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've never taken heroin, but I've had a small dose of (prescribed) morphine, from which heroin is derived.

With morphine, for me at least, not only was my pain relived, but more importantly, I didn't care about the pain. I had no/few worries, despite having just come through a very traumatic and life-threatening situation, and despite not knowing my prognosis.

If the doctors had come in while I was on the morphine drip and told me they were going to, fo instance, amputate my feet, then and there, I'd have shrugged and said "okay." So I suspect your friend died peacefully and without pain, and if he was even aware he was dying (which he likely wasn't), without anxiety or fear.
posted by orthogonality at 3:14 AM on June 27, 2009

To be clear: on morphine I still felt some pain. But it didn't matter. The pain was there, but it was not "painful", and subjectively not consequential.
posted by orthogonality at 3:17 AM on June 27, 2009

Finding out about the death of someone you care is so difficult, but I now believe that when heroin is in involved, it magnifies your loss and shock. I am so sorry for your loss.

From those who have overdosed and were the lucky ones and saved we have been told that the feeling was painless and peaceful.
My sister passed a year ago from a heroin overdose, so I have wrestled and researched the same questions.

May I add that if one of her friends sent my parents a card now, it would probably make them smile to know that she was still being remembered. It is a nice thought.
posted by maggiepie at 7:43 AM on June 27, 2009

Response by poster: Every time I come here to thank everyone, I read through and start crying again. I feel awkward favoriting and marking each answer as best, though.

It's a relief to know that, no matter the trouble that preceded it, his death was most likely very easy for him. I'm going to send his parents a letter and go from there.

Each and every one of you are so damned wonderful. Thank you.
posted by zerokey at 2:50 PM on June 27, 2009

My brother committed suicide just over two years ago. My family and I were unable to inform a couple of his school friends, or invite them to the memorial service, because we couldn't find contact information for them. This still really bothers me. I hope that we'll hear from these friends someday. At such time, we won't hesitate to answer any of their questions about my brother's death, to tell them where he is interred, and to share our grief.

The experience and process of grief are different for everyone. What you are feeling is honest and valid.

Please do contact your friend's family. I hope you are able to offer each other comfort. I'm very sorry for your loss.
posted by Boogiechild at 5:58 PM on June 27, 2009

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