For many people, grief is the process of mourning the loss of a loved one, moving through the painful yearning to have them back by your side. But what if that emptiness has been there for a while? How do you grieve for a conflicted relationship?
Unresolved Grief and Substance Use
Not every relationship is smooth or free of conflict. Many people have mixed feelings about the person that they lost. This is especially true when an addict dies, and even more significant if the two of you have been estranged for a while.
Be honest with yourself — in every moment.
The first thing you can do and should do when losing a loved one to addiction is a promise to follow up each guilty, self-hatred thought with, “This was not my fault.” As hard as it is to believe, it is the truth. Addiction is a serious, often deadly disease, but like any disease, no one person is to blame.
Allow yourself the opportunity to name your emotions, even the ones you may feel guilty about. Mourning an estranged addict loved one forces you to analyze every aspect of the entire relationship. You are bound to have these mixed feelings. Remember, no relationship is perfect.
Conflicted relationships can often complicate pain in the wake of death. It can be more challenging grieving, and you may fixate on the not-so-pleasant memories of the time and distance spent apart. Invite these feelings in, and open up with others about them. The more you hold in, the more damage you can cause.
Understand the Stages of Grief
During the bereavement of an addict or anyone you love, we spend different lengths of time working through and expressing different emotions, at varying levels of intensity. Most psychologists call these the five stages of grief, but that description can be a bit inaccurate. Simply put, grief is just not that simple. However, it’s important to recognize that there are common emotions involved with the loss of a loved one. They may not happen in any specific order, but many people experience them all before moving on to acceptance and peace.
However, when you lose a loved one to addiction, your grief can be more complicated. Here are the stages of grief and ways you can make healthy progress when you are dealing with unresolved grief from substance use.
You may immediately feel like this can’t be real, especially if your loved one has made frequent hospital trips due to his or her addiction. You may feel inclined, at first, to think they’re going to pull through, just like the other times. It’s normal to try to rationalize these painful emotions, a strategy your mind uses to slow down the pain from the shock of the loss.
You may also find yourself denying that you care. You have been estranged from this person for months or even years, and though you love him or her dearly, they have caused you great harm. Don’t try to decide which emotions are right and which are wrong. Allow yourself to feel them without judgment, accepting them as a valid way to feel in this moment.
When the reality of the situation, and its pain, finally sink in, it’s going to hurt — a lot. These intense emotions, overwhelming our hearts and minds, can often be expressed instead as anger. The anger may be aimed at the deceased — you gave them so many chances, spent so much time and money… why couldn’t they love you enough to go to drug rehab? Rationally, you know the person is not to be blamed; the addiction is. That may lead you to feel guilty for being angry, maybe even becoming angry at yourself. Your anger at them for not beating their addiction can also swiftly turn into anger at yourself for not doing more.
Seeing a grief counselor or a therapist can help you talk through these emotions to face the reality of death. In 2016, 60,000 people, and maybe even more, died from an overdose. That number doesn’t even take into account people who pass away due to complications of their addiction, like cirrhosis of the liver or heart attack from stimulants.
This can be a pretty profound emotional state for someone mourning the loss of a drug addict. This normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is elevated because you feel responsible. You weren’t there recently and you weren’t there when the death occurred. You may say to yourself, “If I hadn’t cut him off, I could have been there when he needed medical attention…” or, “If only I made her go to rehab one more time…” or even, “If only I had been a better parent…” Death from addiction is so complicated.
Keeping a journal of these emotions can help you reflect on them from day to day, and allow you to see any patterns emerging. For example, when you had to clean out the deceased’s apartment, how did you feel? Log a journal entry describing the experience. Being able to attach moments of bargaining to what you’re experiencing can help you move forward.
When mourning, depression can result from a general sense of worry about the costs of burial, correcting unresolved issues and going through their belongings. However, it can also result from not having seen the person for a while before their death, and imagining the worst. This depression could convince you of a lot of things, creating scenarios that may or may not be real because you weren’t there to know. You might also feel depressed because of the stigma of death from addiction. You may experience isolation or a lack of sympathy from people close to you.
During this stage, you should try to stay social and active. Go to the gym, join a running group or take long walks in nature. Visit with supportive friends and family members, even in small doses. Most importantly, when you feel overwhelmed, ask for help.
The grief from losing a loved one to drugs or alcohol doesn’t go away quickly or easily; it probably never fully will. You will have moments where you completely second guess yourself, and times when you feel peace and clarity. It’s when those times of peace outnumber those times of depression that you’ve come to a place of acceptance. That doesn’t mean you no longer feel, or don’t get angry from time to time, but it means that you recognize you couldn’t have changed this situation and that this person’s death isn’t your fault — or theirs, either. You make your peace with reality and focus your memory on the positive, hopeful times you shared.
Mourning the death of someone from drug addiction is so complicated that there is no manual, no how-to guide you can follow word for word. Your experience will be uniquely yours. However, if any of the stages of grief seem prolonged, friends and family seem overly worried about you or you have taken to cope with these emotions with illicit substances yourself, you must reach out for mental health help. You are not at fault, and you are not alone. Where there is a help, there is always hope.
At Vertava Health Massachusetts, formerly Swift River, we are here for you. Let us help.