Losing A Loved One To Addiction: What to Do and How to Cope

Of all the major life events you can experience, losing someone you love is one of the most painful events that you will endure. When you experience the death of a loved one or close friend, a multitude of powerful emotions come to the surface and the intensity of these emotions can be overwhelming. While these feelings are a normal part of the mourning and grieving process, this process can become more complicated if your loved one or friend died as a result of drug and alcohol addiction. Along with the positive memories that you may hold of that person, there can also be negative memories that you feel which can make the grieving process more difficult to navigate.

Unfortunately, death due to drug addiction has been steadily increasing in the United States for over two decades and has become the leading cause of injury and death. According to figures published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 114 people die in the United States as a result of drug overdoses and nearly nine out of every ten poisoning deaths are attributed to drug abuse. If someone you love dies due to addiction, there are certain stages of grief that you will go through. While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, it is important to understand these stages and find ways to deal with your pain in a way that will allow you to move on.

The Stages of Grief When Losing Someone to Addiction

Grief is a highly individualized experience and everyone goes through the process differently. Whatever your experience may be, it is important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to occur naturally and for however long it takes. When we grieve the loss of a loved one, we go through several stages of the grieving process. When we work through these stages we feel different levels of emotional intensity. It is important to note the stages of grief that we experience do not necessarily go in order and there is no concrete timetable in regards to the length of each stage.

The first stage in the grieving process is denial and isolation. In this initial stage, we react to the news of a loved one that has died from addiction by denying the reality of the situation. The blocking of those overwhelming emotions is a defense mechanism that helps buffer the shock that we feel. While we understand the event has happened, we hide from the facts in order to carry us through the initial wave of pain and anguish.

This is a temporary response, and once it wears off the reality of the situation re-emerges and we enter the second stage of the grief which is anger. Our anger comes from the fact that we aren’t prepared to adequately deal with our vulnerability and emotions. Those emotions are redirected towards other people, friends, family, and the addict. We feel resentment they have died and may feel anger towards family, friends, and medical professionals who failed to help the loved one. We may even feel guilty for being angry, and in turn that makes us even angrier.

In order to overcome our feelings of helplessness in regard to the situation, we attempt to regain control by engaging in bargaining. During this stage of the grieving process, we may say things such as:

  • “If we were able to get through to them sooner…”
  • “If only we were able to get them help….”
  • “If only we had tried to listen…”

Bargaining is a weaker line of defense that temporarily protects us from the reality of the loved one’s death and once that wears away we enter a stage where we feel overwhelming depression. In this stage, there are two different types of depression that we feel. The first type of depression we experience, we may worry about funeral arrangements and burial costs and the regret we may feel about not spending time with those who depend on us. The second form of depression we feel during this stage runs deeper and is more private. With this form of depression, we are preparing to say goodbye and learn how to let go of our loved ones.

The last stage of the grieving process is acceptance where we experience feelings of calm and peace. When we accept the fact that our loved one is gone, we can begin the process of healing and move forward with our lives. In this stage, we are no longer looking backward trying to relive what should have been done or what could have been done. Instead, we begin to understand that a new chapter in life is beginning.

Getting Support to Deal With Your Grief When Losing Someone to Addiction

When you experience the grief associated with the death of a loved one due to addiction, it can feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster. While the feelings that you are going through may seem unbearable, it is important to seek the support of others so that you can heal. By turning to others in your time of need, you are able to work through those overwhelming emotions. To start the healing process, you need to lean on family members and friends and accept offers of assistance that may be offered you.

If you follow a religious or spiritual tradition, you can embrace your faith and engage in prayer and meditation to find comfort. If you feel vulnerable in your faith, you can seek the support and encouragement of clergy or other religious leaders. You can also talk to an experienced therapist to help you work through the intense emotions that are associated with grief and mourning. Additionally, there are many support groups that are available to you where you can share your feelings of loss with others.

One of the most well-known grief support groups for those families who lost loved ones due to addiction is GRASP. GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing) was founded to provide resources, assistance, and encouragement to those families who have had loved ones dies as a result of substance abuse addiction. Another well-known grief support group is GriefShare. This group meets weekly and engages in personal reflection and group study in order to work through the emotional challenges presented by grief and mourning.

If you need assistance in finding a grief support group in your area, you can start by contacting local hospitals and counseling centers, as well as your local funeral homes and local substance abuse advocacy groups.

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