Grieving Relationships Affected by Addiction

Addiction is a thief and a tyrant. It does not discriminate. It is an equal-opportunity destroyer. When it has touched you or someone you love, life will never be the same. This is particularly true for those who have lost a loved one to this brutal disease. All too often, the grief of losing a loved one to addiction is accompanied by a maelstrom of emotions that the bereaved may fear to admit even to themselves, let alone to express to others.

This does not mean, though, that healing and recovery are not possible. There is a hopeful and happy future to be found in the wake of such loss. No, it will never be what it once was. It will never be what it might have been. But there can be a brighter tomorrow on the other side of tragedy.

Grieving without Guilt

The loss of a loved one is devastating, no matter the circumstances. However, when you lose someone to addiction, the pain you feel is likely to be accompanied by a host of emotions that may seem to have no part in the mourning process. 

You may feel guilty, plagued by questions concerning what you might have done differently. You might wonder if they might have been saved if only you had been stronger, had intervened sooner, and had forced them to seek help. Such questions may be natural, but they are also unhealthy and self-destructive. 

The reality is that you are not responsible for your loved one’s choices, nor did you have the power to control their disease. Just as you would not blame yourself if you lost them to cancer or heart disease, you should not blame yourself for losing them to dependency.

Letting Yourself Be Angry

Love is the most powerful force on earth. It can infuse grandmothers with the strength to lift a car off a stricken child. It can drive a father to rush into a burning building. It can compel a soldier to give their life to save their friends.

When the beloved is lost to drugs or alcohol, though, that profound love can quickly turn to unspeakable rage. If you are among the thousands of grandparents who are raising the grief-stricken and traumatized children left behind when your adult son or daughter overdosed on opioids, for example, you may well feel as enraged at your lost child as you are heartsick at the loss of them. 

You may resent the pain their disease, and their loss, have caused. You may also resent the immense responsibility they have placed on your shoulders at the precise time of life when you have earned the right to rest and breathe easily. Now, instead of simply getting to enjoy your grandchildren, you may be tasked not only with raising them, but with helping the children cope with grief you can barely understand or accommodate yourself.

You have every reason and every right to be angry. For your sake and the sake of those who love you, though, you can’t get stuck in anger. You have to move forward, even if it’s only one hour, one minute, or one single breath at a time.

Recovery and Resilience

When you are mired in the grief of an addiction-related bereavement, you might feel that there’s no way out. It is possible, though, to find healing through resilience. Resilience, in essence, refers to the capacity to overcome adversity — even the extreme adversity of losing a loved one to addiction. 

The key to resilience lies not in avoiding or denying the adversity, but in confronting it head-on, and in acknowledging the pain and trauma as an essential first step in transforming it into something positive. 

One technique of resilience training is re-languaging. Our thoughts and perspectives are profoundly shaped by the words we use, by the ways we choose, both consciously or unconsciously, to name and describe our world and our experiences. 

This is why, whether you are the one who has experienced the loss or you are someone endeavoring to support a bereaved friend, the terms you use to discuss the situation are instrumental in shaping the response to it.  

Using negative or pejorative terminology to describe the addiction and the person who has experienced the addiction can trap you and those around you in a destructive mindset. In this mindset, those involved are powerless to overcome the tragedy or transform it into something productive and meaningful. 

The lost one, for example, should never be defined by or referred to as their illness. They were not, for instance, an “addict.” They were a person experiencing an addiction. Even such a simple shift in phraseology shifts the discourse from one of blame and judgment to one that acknowledges addiction as an illness. 

When an “addict” is lost, there is no hope for redemption, no chance that something good can be born of something tragic. When a “person with an addiction” is lost, then the individual can be mourned, distinct from the disease they suffered from. At the same time, the disease may be recognized as an adversary to continue to fight, through research and advocacy, in honor and remembrance of all who have experienced it.

The Takeaway

Grief, they say, is the price we pay for loving. When you lose a loved one to addiction, that grieving process is often complicated by a chaos of emotions that may seem insurmountable. It is possible, though, to heal after an addiction-related loss. The key is to allow yourself to feel what you must, to accept the anger and guilt that so often accompany the pain, without getting trapped in these emotions. Cultivating resilience is often the key to rebuilding a happy, healthy life after loss.

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