“Fentanyl Poisoning” Narrative Imposes a Hierarchy of Grief

    In November, the Kansas City Star reported: “To those in our area who have lost their children to fentanyl, the deaths aren’t overdoses. They feel their sons and daughters were poisoned.”  

    There was nothing unfamiliar about this message. “She calls it fentanyl poisoning because she says her daughter, like many others, was not a substance abuser,” reported North Carolina’s Queen City News, that same month, of a bereaved mother. “‘Overdose’ has a stigma that many families feel is not a proper description of their loved ones.”

    In June, an article in the New Republic related: “Families like the Capeloutos are adamant that their child did not experience some sort of self-imposed tragedy. Instead, they use the word ‘poisoned,’ which makes it clear there is a villain in the mix here—and it certainly was not their kid.” 

    “I will never say my daughter died of a drug overdose,” the bereaved father told reporter Zachary Siegel. “She was deceived to death.”

    “It was also important for me to define that these are not overdoses, these are poisonings,” said a mother at a drug-induced homicide sentencing in January, as reported by the Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction, Colorado. “My daughter was poisoned.”

    The fentanyl poisoning narrative creates a hierarchy of grief that devalues people who died of overdose and their loved ones.

    These quotes are not outliers, but among countless examples in recent years. They are emblematic of a dominant narrative around fentanyl—one that is being driven by parent-formed organizations. These bereaved parents, understandably seeking something to blame for their devastating losses, cast their children’s deaths as “fentanyl poisoning”—an act committed by someone else, and entirely distinct from overdose. 

    People who die from illicit fentanyl have been poisoned and did not deserve to die,” states the nonprofit Song For Charlie.

    But what if the person knew they were consuming fentanyl?

    A video the nonprofit posted in 2022 describes how a person could fatally overdose by “choosing” to drink an entire bottle of Jack Daniels—in contrast with a person who died after taking a single shot, because the bottle actually contained cyanide. 

    “An overdose occurs when a person ingests too much of a known substance, resulting in either illness or death,” the organization further states. “Fentapill deaths are different. The consumer is being deceived.”

    In insisting on this contrast, the fentanyl poisoning narrative is deeply harmful. First, it creates a hierarchy of grief that devalues people who died of overdose and their loved ones. And second, it enables and promotes policies that cause still more suffering and grief.

    Emphasizing the “innocence” of people who died from consuming fentanyl unknowingly contrasts them with others.

    With the exception of suicide, no one intends to die. You may know you’re using fentanyl, but that does you little good if you don’t know the dose or the other contents. People aren’t dying of overdose because they’re “choosing” to take too much, as if these drugs came with accurate product labeling. 

    The poisoning narrative emphasizes the “innocence” of people who died from consuming fentanyl unknowingly. In doing so, it contrasts them with others: the people who sold the drugs (guilty of murder); and people who knowingly used fentanyl (guilty of the choice that led to their overdose).

    Any bereaved parent would wish to remember their child in their best light. None would wish to blame their child for actions that led to their death. Yet basing their child’s “innocence” on their unawareness of what they were consuming causes profound damage.

    Death by overdose is already a stigmatized death. Parents who lost their children in this way suffer disenfranchised grief—neither acknowledged nor accepted as worthy by society. They are stigmatized as bad parents because their children were “addicts” who used drugs and died. Both the child and the parents are blamed for the death.

    I work alongside such parents, members of the organization I serve, Broken No More. They and other parents loved their children with all their hearts. Many struggled alongside their children for years, doing all they could to keep them safe and alive. Some even bankrupted themselves on “rehabs” in trying to save their children. 

    And while they were fighting to save their children’s lives, society stigmatized them, thus denying them support and services that could have helped keep their children alive. And all the while, they lived with anticipatory grief, knowing, every day, that the next phone call or knock at the door could be the one telling them of the death of their child. Many parents endured all of this for years, their struggle a testament to their love. 

    And now, after all they have suffered, they are made to suffer more. The fentanyl poisoning message, with its hierarchy of “innocent” and “guilty” victims, debases their pain and grief as parents who loved their children no less. It devalues the lives of their children who were no less valuable.

    No one has the right to do that. Not even parents who endure grief of their own. 

    Whether the person bought a pressed pill off Snapchat or smoked fentanyl, their life was no less meaningful, and their death no less tragic. 

    Why might they do this? Naturally, they would wish their child to be viewed as innocent. And in society’s eyes, If their child is innocent, then by extension, so are they. In this light, their grief is not disenfranchised. It is worthy of society’s acceptance. And if society accepts their grief as worthy, then their desire to seek revenge on the “dealer” is also seen as legitimate.

    If, however, we recognize that all lives are equally precious, then we can see that this hierarchy of grief is a fiction—a fiction whose purpose is to allow some grieving parents to find a degree of solace from the horrific pain of losing their child, at the expense of others.  

    This poisoning narrative has been adopted and amplified by law enforcement, prosecutors, politicians, and the DEA to enact more punitive drug laws, as I previously described for Filter. The DEA actively recruits these organizations, weaponizing their grief, to advance its agenda.  

    The punitive drug laws championed by these parent groups will not only fail to save other parents’ children; they will cause more harm and more deaths among people who use drugs.

    But a harmful hierarchy of grief exists only if we allow it to exist. It exists only if we accept that some lives are more valuable than others and that the grief of some parents is more valid than that of others.

    There is another way. Many parents and others who lost loved ones to overdose understand the harms of punitive drug policies. In September, over 400 signed this open letter to lawmakers opposing these measures and calling, instead, for humane drug policies based on public health, science and harm reduction.

    We must reject all narratives that foster the belief that some lives are more valuable than others. Every life is precious; every drug-related death a preventable tragedy. Whether the person bought a pressed pill off Snapchat or smoked fentanyl, their life was no less meaningful, and their death no less tragic. 



    Photograph via Pxhere/Public Domain

    • Sam has a PhD in biopsychology from the University of Georgia and a National Institute on Drug Abuse Post-Doctoral Fellowship in the Pharmacology and Toxicology Department at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He also has a 35-year history of heroin and Dilaudid use. For the first 13 years, his use was occasional. For the next 22 years, he experienced opioid addiction. He currently serves as a member of the board of directors of Broken No More/GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing). He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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