Palette of Grief® After a Substance Use Death

Picture of a palette with a hand holding a paintbrush

Written by: Barbara Rubel, MA, BCETS, DAAETS

When someone you care about dies, it can break your heart. When they die suddenly because of a fatal overdose, your heart can shatter into a million pieces. Although your mind feels like it is spinning out of control and your heart is breaking, there are ways to manage your loss. 

Factors That Influence Grief After a Drug-Related Death

I use the term Palette of Grief® as a metaphor to describe the grief process. A palette is the thin, flat board with a thumbhole used by artists to hold and blend paint colors. Similarly, you can apply the palette metaphor to your loss. The palette holds and blends your grief. This metaphor captures your grief process, which is a blending of physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and spiritual reactions such as:

  • Physical: dizziness, hives, sweating, weakened, nauseous, muscle tension, headaches, backaches
  • Emotional: angry, empty, guilty, nervous, rejected, shame, worried, sadness, disgusted, frazzled
  • Cognitive: confused, brain fog, difficulty trusting others, sense of unreality, nightmares
  • Behavioral: tearful, procrastinate, look at photos, pace, moody, seek out places, preoccupied
  • Spiritual: forsaken, believe loved one is in heaven, enlightened, hopeless, life is meaningless

REFLECTION: What grief reactions have you experienced?

Factors that Influence Your Palette of Grief® After a Substance Abuse Death

Generally, because of the stigma, you are more likely to be impaired than those bereaved by an accident, homicide, or natural death. You may not feel socially supported or cannot openly acknowledge your loss or publicly mourn. Characteristics that can influence the way you grieve are perceived lack of social support, manner of death, unnatural death, preventable death, sudden death, and unexpected death.

REFLECTION: What characteristics have influenced your grief?

Coping with Loss and Finding Ways to Heal

Over the past 20 years, grief experts have developed models of mourning, such as the four tasks of mourning. According to William Worden, four tasks help you cope with loss by:

  1. Accepting the reality of the loss
  2. Processing the pain
  3. Adjusting to a world without the deceased
  4. Finding an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life

REFLECTION: In what ways have you completed the four tasks of grief?

10 Tips to Manage the Palette of Grief® After a Drug Misuse Death

  1. Recognize that your loved one is not returning by creating a loss ritual such as lighting a candle in their name
  2. Slowly process the pain of a drug-related death with a friend or family member
  3. Understand that the Palette of Grief is a blend of emotions that can get complicated
  4. Restructure your everyday life without your loved one
  5. Identify the tasks your loved one did and learn new skills to take on that role
  6. Keep the memories you have alive and share them with others
  7. Wear something that belonged to them or openly display their personal belonging
  8. Keep an ongoing spiritual connection while you continue on in life
  9. Write your loved one a letter and then read it out loud
  10. Create new meaningful relationships


Barbara Rubel, MA, BCETS, DAAETS

I am an author and speaker on issues related to sudden loss, complicated grief, and bereavement. During my keynotes and webinars, I help professionals understand ways to help bereaved families manage loss after traumatic deaths such as drug overdose and suicide. My website is


Rubel, B. (2020). But I Didn’t Say Goodbye: Helping families after a suicide. NJ: Griefwork Center, Inc.

Rubel, B. (2020). When a Mother’s Heart is Broken.

Rubel, B, (2019). Loss, Grief, and Bereavement: Helping individuals cope. MA: Elite Healthcare

Rubel, B, (2018). Palette of Grief. NJ: Griefwork Center, Inc.

Worden, W. (2018). Grief Counseling and grief therapy (5th ed.) NY: Springer.

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