No matter what your relationship, losing a loved one is a terrible and traumatic event. Losing your loved one to a disorder such as addiction may make that process worse and may add to your own trauma. People who survive their addicted loved ones may feel pressured by grief, stigma, and blame and may struggle with moving on.
Over 70,000 Americans died from drug and alcohol-related abuse in 2017. While most of us feel alone when we struggle with grief, especially over the loss of a loved one and social stigma, we aren’t. One in 5 Americans knows an addict and 2-5% of us have had now die of overdose or addiction-related problems. While our relationships to the people we lose to substance use disorder changes, it’s important to get help, learn how to cope in healthy ways, and to create healthy behavior patterns that reinforce what you love about that person, rather than their illness.
Learning how to cope with the death of a loved one is a process that will always take time. Your goal should be to do so at your own pace.
Allow Yourself to Grieve
People sometimes feel wrong for grieving the loss of a loved one when that loss relates to drug or alcohol abuse. This is doubly true when your addicted loved one was emotionally or even physically abusive towards you. The result is that people often try to repress how they feel and end up in denial of those emotions. This can cause you to feel worse, can cause you to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, and will damage your health and allow any trauma to worsen. Take time out to grieve, give yourself space to feel bad, and recognize that you are grieving both for a relationship with a person that you loved and for them.
You can try practicing remembering your loved one for who they were before their disorder. You can also try remembering your loved one for who they were as a person, even throughout that disorder, because chances are, they were very often still someone you could love and care about.
Seek Out Social Support
It’s important to seek out social support as part of recovering from grief. Ideally, you can do so with friends and family because you share a bond and a shared memory of that person. This won’t always be possible for various reasons, but it is important. If you can, consider spending a few days a week with friends and loved ones, talking about good memories with your loved one, coming to terms with bad memories together, and moving on together.
Coping with Stigma – Social pressure and stigma can result in the people around you failing to show support. You might hear people saying hurtful things, telling you to be glad your loved one isn’t suffering anymore, or saying they deserved it. This kind of stigma is common and typically stems from rampant misunderstanding surrounding substance use disorder. If you can, try to ask your friends and loved ones to educate themselves about addiction, if you can’t, seek out supportive groups like Al-Anon.
Recognizing PTSD – Most people suffer at least some trauma following the death of a loved one. However, it’s important to stop and recognize if it’s becoming persistent, if symptoms continue beyond a reasonable period, or if you experience crippling side-effects, flashbacks, or depression and anxiety as a result. PTSD can stem from the death of your loved one, from their actions while addicted, and from lack of social support after their death. PTSD in the parents of addicts is sometimes especially hard to deal with. If you are struggling, get help.
Understanding Guilt – Guilt is an important and natural part of the grieving process. However, it’s often significantly worse when your loved one has died as the result of a substance use disorder. You might be telling yourself that you should have gotten them help. Or that you could have done more. Your friends and family might be telling you the same. No matter what happened or why, your loved one made their own choices and you cannot change those choices for them. They didn’t choose to be addicted but you didn’t choose that for them either. It’s crucial that you avoid blaming yourself for their choices or for their death.
You can’t always get help from your family, so you may want to seek out social support groups. SMART Recovery and AL-Anon each offer resources for the family members of people with substance use disorder. This means that you can join group meetings to discuss your loved one, their problems, and how they affect you. You can hear about how others experienced the same problems, how they coped, and how they moved on. You can also talk about your loved one and their problems in a much more judgment-free environment, because everyone there will have similar experiences. While self-help groups aren’t for everyone, they can greatly help you to get support and to feel understood while grieving for your loved one.
Go to Family Therapy
Living with an addicted loved one is a traumatic and difficult process. Losing that loved one to their disorder is worse. You have suffered trauma, and it will take time to get over. Seeking out family therapy can help you to move past that trauma in a healthy way. Family therapy can also help you to develop coping mechanisms to deal with grief and move past it, help you to reexamine your relationship with your loved one, and to move past their addiction. This is especially important if you had a turbulent relationship with your loved one, if you were their spouse (especially if you have children together), or if several people are involved and are experiencing pain. Living with an addicted loved one changes family hierarchy, creates unhealthy behavior patterns, and can deeply harm your family as a whole. Seeking therapy to help you and your loved ones move on is important.
Depending on you and your needs, you may want to go to a psychotherapist or to family therapy, but you should likely get help and see a professional therapist for advice.
The death of a loved one is never easy, and addiction can add to that trauma. It’s easy to feel conflicted, guilty, and ashamed of their or your behavior. It’s easy to blame yourself for their death. And, it’s easy to pick up unhealthy coping mechanisms or worsen your own trauma. Getting help, making time to grieve, and understanding that addiction is no one’s fault are just a few of the steps you can take to cope with their death. At the same time, everyone deals with death in their own way. Don’t feel rushed to be okay sooner, grieve for as long as you need to, in your own way, and without pressure. Just be sure to seek out help when you think you need it.
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