Sobering Study

Alcohol poisoning isn't just a dorm room phenomenon, and too often, loved ones have to cope with the fallout


The death of a loved one is painful enough. But losing a loved one who dies of alcohol poisoning can bring more complicated feelings, including guilt and shame.

In January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its Vital Signs report on alcohol poisoning deaths. During 2010-12, the annual national average for alcohol poisoning deaths was 2,221 (8.8 deaths per 1 million population) in the United States, making it one of the top leading causes of preventable deaths. In Michigan, an average of 77 people died per year. 

Binge drinking can lead to death from alcohol poisoning. In Michigan, nearly 20 percent of adults reported binge drinking in 2011, according to the 2013 Prevention Status Report. 

Alcoholism was a factor in 30 percent of alcohol poisoning deaths, so most of the people who died weren’t alcohol dependent, according to the study. And, despite the headlines, most people who die from alcohol poisoning aren’t college students; three in four were middle-aged adults, and 76 percent of those were men. 

For loved ones, alcohol poisoning takes its emotional toll. Experts say seeking out a support group as well as going to grief counseling can help.

Nancy Quay, a psychotherapist based in Ann Arbor, has been working with individuals and families for 18 years.

“They have all the regular issues of grief and loss, but there are two other pertinent issues that they may experience that others don’t,” says Quay, who added that the issue has affected her personally with the recent death of a colleague from alcohol poisoning. “One is guilt, that they didn’t do something, that they weren’t effective in whatever they tried to do. They might have been able to save this person but they didn’t. And the other [issue] is shame.

“Shame just really persists so all the time they’re grieving — and I’m seeing this with my colleague that died with the family — they’re grieving but they’re also feeling this guilt and shame that they didn’t stop her somehow.”

Janet Neracher, a volunteer with the Oakland County branch of Al-Anon, a support group for people whose loved ones have substance abuse problems, says the first step for loved ones is “to admit we are powerless over alcohol.”

“They’re feeling loss, co-dependence, and fear that goes along with a family member with alcohol troubles,” Neracher says.

At Al-Anon meetings, the goal is to build an environment where people feel welcome and safe, says Neracher. 

“The big thing is the 3 C’s: You didn’t cause it, you can’t cure it, and can’t control it.”

One of the first things Quay recommends to patients is “that you start telling the truth.

“Honesty is the best thing you can do and getting it out into the open and asking for help.” 

Warning Signs

Binge drinking is defined as four drinks in a short period of time for women, five for men, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 

Dr. Robert Lagrou, medical director of Henry Ford Maplegrove Center, says some people might not “realize they’re drinking a big 24-ounce beer. … that’s actually more than just a normal can or bottle of beer.” 

You don’t have to become a teetotaler and eschew happy hour, but you should know your limits. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as one drink a day for women and up to two per day for men.

“If people are going to a party and they know they’re going to have a few drinks, they need to be aware,” Lagrou says.

Very high levels of alcohol in the body can shut down critical areas of the brain that control breathing, heart rate, and body temperature, resulting in death, according to the CDC.

Life-threatening signs of alcohol poisoning include: inability to wake up, vomiting, slow and/or irregular breathing, seizures, and hypothermia.


What is a Standard Drink?

  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits


Where to Get Help 

  • Grief Recovery After Substance Passing (GRASP) is a support group for family members of individuals who have died from substance abuse or addiction. Meetings are held the second Wednesday every month at St. Malachy Church in Sterling Heights.
  • Care of Southeastern Michigan, a nonprofit that focuses on mental health, substance abuse prevention and programming, family support services, and employee assistance. For more information, go to
  • Oakland County Al-Anon Family Groups. To find a meeting, go to
  • Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, an agency that manages specialty services for consumers with or at risk for serious emotional disturbance (SED), severe mental illness (SMI), developmental disabilities (DD), substance abuse, and MIChild beneficiaries. Call 313-833-2500 or go to
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