How to Cope with the Death of an Addicted Loved One
We all know coping with the death of a loved one is part of life, even though it is not something that any of us finds particularly pleasant. All types of loss hurt, but there is something about the death of a loved one from addiction that puts it in a different category altogether.
What Is Addiction?
At one point, the general consensus among researchers was that people living with addiction had some type of moral flaw that made them unable to resist the temptation of intoxicants. As a result of this thinking, an addict was thought of as someone who was to be pitied, or more likely, punished. Rarely were these people understood.
Through research, the scientific community has recognized addiction as a chronic disease affecting a significant portion of the U.S. population. Close to 1 in 10 people (approximately 23 million Americans) are addicted to either alcohol or some other drug. Addiction not only affects the way the brain functions in users, but it also affects the brain’s structure. Alcohol is one of the most abused substances, with more than two-thirds of addicts using it.
Addiction Is Different From Other Chronic Diseases
Addiction has similarities to other chronic diseases, such as arthritis or diabetes, so it may help to think of addiction like this: Addiction can cause damage to the brain in the same manner a heart attack damages the heart. Addiction requires constant monitoring and follow-up care, like other chronic health conditions.
However, the difference between addiction and other types of health issues is the shame and stigma that surrounds it. These two factors make losing a loved one to addiction even more difficult to deal with.
Grieving the Death of an Addicted Loved One: What Is Grief?
Grief is a response to a loss, and it is completely normal. When you lose someone you care deeply about, it will be emotionally painful for you.
At its most intense points, you may wonder whether the sadness and the difficulty with coping you are experiencing will ever go away. It’s important to understand that there is no timetable for grieving. You are not supposed to be “finished” by a certain time. Everyone goes through this process differently and at their own pace.
Stages of Grief
When a loved one dies, it is normal to go through different stages of grief. What we call the “five stages of grief,” were first described by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist working with terminally ill patients. In 1969, she listed and described different emotions based on her observations. She noted the five stages of grief as follows:
Often, a person’s first reaction to hearing about the death of a loved one is shock, and then denial. How often have you heard someone say, “But I just saw or spoke to [name of person who passed on] last week [or a few days ago]?” In our minds, we think since we recently had contact with someone and they seemed to be doing (at least) reasonably well, they can’t be gone.
For some people, hearing the news a loved one has passed away brings a feeling of numbness. It’s as though the pain from the loss would be too much to process all at once, so we are provided with a type of emotional anesthesia for the first few hours, or even days, after experiencing a loss.
Even if you know your loved one was suffering from a potentially life-threatening addiction, it is normal to be shocked if you get the news that they succumbed to this disease. The shock factor allows you to focus on the tragedy of the loss of someone who had a number of positive qualities and the potential to contribute something to the world.
It’s not uncommon for people who are grieving to feel angry once the shock of hearing about the death of someone they care for has worn off. Who is this anger directed toward? It can be targeted at one or more of the following:
- Your loved one’s drug of choice.
- Your loved one’s friends and/or associates who could have intervened in the situation but did nothing.
- Your family members for enabling the addiction.
- Yourself for not doing enough, for not stepping in to do something soon enough or for giving up on the deceased too soon.
- Your loved one for starting to use drugs or alcohol in the first place or not being strong enough to resist triggers and keep their sobriety intact.
- God, or your idea of a Higher Power, for allowing this to happen.
The anger comes from a place where you are looking for a reason why the person you cared for passed away so suddenly and why they were not able to “beat” their addiction. We like it when things fit neatly into boxes and when there is an explanation that makes sense for events in our lives. Losing someone we love to addiction seldom makes sense, which makes us feel robbed of time we could have spent together, if only the addiction did not get in the way.
This is the stage where we wish the situation would just disappear. You may find yourself appealing to your Higher Power (however you perceive it), saying, “Make all of this a bad dream, and I promise I will [insert promise here].” Logically, this may not make sense, but in the moment, you are prepared to do just about anything to get some relief from the emotional pain and “not” have to deal with the situation anymore.
Grief is not the same thing as depression. You can be depressed while you are grieving the death of an addicted loved one, though. Excessive fatigue and lack of motivation, as well as feeling overwhelmed by even the idea of tackling everyday tasks are not uncommon. You may have difficulty falling or staying asleep or want to stay in bed all the time. Depression has been described as feeling “empty” or as feeling “foggy.” During this stage, you may experience mood swings, such as feeling irritable or deeply sad (with or without crying).
This is the stage where someone feels at peace with their loss. Not everyone goes through each of these stages, or even experiences them in this order. Even if you do experience one of these stages of grief and think you are “finished” with it, something may happen to you that puts you back into the Anger or Depression stage.
Other Symptoms of Grief
Dealing with the death of a loved one by addiction can also give rise to some other feelings. You may experience guilt, shame and fear due to the cause of death.
When someone is coping with the death of an addicted loved one, guilt can take on some different forms. If your loved one passed due to an overdose, you may feel guilty:
• for not intervening in some way to prevent it.
• for feeling a sense of relief, especially if you and your family had been dealing with someone with an active addiction for several years.
Guilt can also make you examine your interactions with the deceased over months and even years. You may be wondering whether you were supportive enough or did everything you could to encourage your loved one to seek treatment.
This is a mental treadmill you don’t want to spend time on for very long. While some feelings of guilt are normal after the death of a loved one, if you find yourself stuck feeling guilty and you can’t move forward from these types of thoughts, consider seeking help from a grief counselor or a therapist.
Shame can be confused with guilt, but they are not the same emotion. Guilt is a private thing, and it has to do with how we perceive ourselves based on our behavior. Shame has to do with how others perceive us. It is based on the idea that the action we chose to take was flawed, and we should have done something different.
When grieving the loss of a loved one to addiction, shame can become a factor in different ways. Some people feel so ashamed by the idea a family member could have had a substance abuse issue that they refuse to acknowledge it, even after the person died. They may talk around the issue instead. For example, if the actual cause of death was determined to be a heart attack caused by drug use, this type of person will focus on the fact that their loved one died of a heart attack and not the drug use that triggered it.
Shame may also be felt with family members blaming themselves; for instance, parents feeling as though they were bad parents because their child developed an addiction. This is not true. Parents or other family members did not “give” someone an addiction. This disease is not contagious, and the road to a full-blown, active addiction is like a slope that develops over time. It is the repeated pattern of behavior that contributes to an addiction taking hold. None of these circumstances are things that a parent or anyone else can control, nor are they things they should feel ashamed of.
It’s also not uncommon for a parent, friend or other family member to put their behavior under a microscope after the death of a loved one to look for instances of enabling. The enabling process is when someone starts doing things for an addict that may allow that person to continue their addiction. It can include things like calling in sick for someone who is too hung over to go to work, paying rent for someone who is unable to hold a job or giving someone money to buy drugs or alcohol to discourage them from stealing to get funds.
Many families get involved in enabling behaviors because they don’t know what else to do. Addicts can also be very persuasive. They tell the people they love that if they get help “just this once,” they will be able to get it together to stop drinking, using or go to treatment. Unfortunately, this needing help usually does not happen just once, and promises are often broken once the person gets drunk or high.
After a certain point, family members may have become frustrated during the deceased’s lifetime and decided to back off from having further contact. Even for people who believe that it’s important to be supportive to family members “no matter what,” it can be incredibly frustrating to deal with someone who is living with an addiction. Some family members may have decided they could no longer watch someone they cared for continue to use drugs or alcohol and refuse to go to treatment.
If the addicted family member passes away, other people in the family may look at the way they behaved and feel ashamed of their behavior. In hindsight, they may feel as though there was more they could have done for their addicted loved one. This is probably not true, but they feel as though they will be judged for the things they failed to do for their loved one.
This is not a feeling you might usually associate with dealing with the death of a loved one, but when addiction is involved, it can create a different situation from the norm. When one person you care for dies as a result of addiction, you may be afraid other people in the family may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of coping with the overwhelming grief. It doesn’t seem to make logical sense that other people around you would start using if they know you just lost a loved one to the influence of drugs or alcohol, but it does happen. People who are grieving may look to anything they can find to make the pain go away, even for a short time.
If you have other family members who have substance abuse problems, finding out a loved one has died due to an addiction may trigger a fear that others will also overdose. While it’s impossible to control someone else’s reaction or their behavior, you can make a point of checking in on family members whom you feel may be at risk.
The death of a loved one from addiction can also trigger fear that a family member who is currently in recovery may become stressed to the extent that they will have a relapse. Your family member in recovery will have been taught stress management skills and have been encouraged to seek follow-up care after completing their initial treatment program. However, you can certainly ask how they are doing and find out from the treatment center whether there is any additional support in place for the recent loss.
Part of going to treatment includes learning to deal with crises that will eventually come up. Your family member in recovery can get support from a number of sources to stay sober. But where can you get support when you need it for your own grief?
Where to Find Support for Your Grief Following the Loss of Your Addicted Loved One
It can seem overwhelming to deal with the loss of a loved one from addiction. But there are many ways to help you cope with the devastation.
Develop a Support System
When you are grieving the loss of your loved one from addiction, don’t think you need to be strong and do it all on your own. Develop a support system of people you can count on to help you during this difficult time. Everyone’s support system will look different, but it can include people in your life you can count on to give you encouragement and support when you need it. Here are some examples:
• Spouse or partner
• Parents or grandparents
• Children (if they are old enough)
• Other family members
• Coworkers or neighbors
• Club members
• Doctors or counselors
• Members of the clergy
Many people want to help but aren’t sure exactly what to do, especially once the funeral is over. Help them by providing some guidance. Friends, family members and other people in your life may not know whether you want to talk about your recent loss or if you want to take a break and talk about something else for a time. Let them know how you are feeling day to day.
If you become emotional, allow the people in your support system to sit with you and let you be in the moment. There is nothing wrong with expressing your emotions. If you bury them and try to hold them in, it will take you longer to reach the point where you can think about your deceased loved one or say their name without experiencing a shot of emotional pain along with it. There is no way you can get around the grieving process. You have let yourself experience it for the pain to subside.
Sometimes you need practical help from people in your support network. Depending on where you are in your own grief, you may find some household activities are too much for you. Don’t be shy about asking for practical help if you need assistance with shopping, meal preparation or keeping your home tidy. Be specific when you ask, “Can you come over for an hour to help me with X?” Most people won’t mind helping if you put a set time limit on your request and they know what is expected of them.
Find a Support Group
If you would prefer to share your thoughts about your grief in an environment where it will be kept confidential, consider joining a support group. You may really love and appreciate your friends, family and other people in your life, but you might not feel confident opening up about your most personal thoughts during your grief. One of the rules for support groups is that anything shared at a meeting is to be held in strict confidence.
You can also rest assured that everyone who attends a grief support group meeting will understand what you are going through. Their experiences may not be exactly like yours, but they will be similar enough that you will likely feel comfortable in the environment. Whether you choose to listen to other members share their experiences or you decide to talk about your own grief journey in detail, you can learn a lot about:
• How other members feel/felt at their different stages of grief.
• What strategies worked and did not work for them as coping mechanisms.
• How they are doing now in their own journeys.
Spending time with people who are further along in their healing is helpful because it gives you hope for your own journey. You can gain encouragement by knowing it is possible to feel better and heal from grief — without forgetting your loved one’s memory.
How do you find a grief support group? You can contact a funeral director, a social worker at a hospital or your doctor to ask for a recommendation. The support group will be run/moderated by a facilitator who is a grief counselor or a therapist, and they will be able to keep the group on topic and provide feedback about participants’ experiences. The facilitator can also answer questions as necessary.
If you are concerned about a loved one’s drug or alcohol use, contact 12 Keys Rehab. It’s not too late to get help for addiction and move forward into a life of sobriety. We offer detox and rehabilitation services in a comfortable and supportive environment where we can focus on each client’s individual needs.