Losing a Loved One to Addiction: Death and Mourning

Losing a loved one to addiction

One of the most painful experiences a person can face is losing a loved one to addiction. Friends and family members often try so hard to be there for their loved one – to encourage them to seek help, to beg and plead that they turn their life around, to help pick up some of the pieces that fall once addiction’s taken over. Devastatingly, sometimes a person is too far into their addiction to seek treatment – and when they pass on because of it, it’s enough to break a person’s heart.

According to The Fix, a website that publishes relatable information on addiction and recovery, nearly 72,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2017. Our society has a difficult time talking about healing from this, but nonetheless, it affects everyone in the country. Robert Kreiss, a residential counselor, told The Fix in 2018 of his cousin dying from complications of addiction. He stated,

“At that point in my life, I didn’t understand what addiction truly was, I didn’t know that she was suffering from it, and I had no idea how to process it.”

Defining Grief

Grief is a natural process that is defined as “deep sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death”. When we lose someone we love, someone we have memories with, and someone whom we tried to help, it’s downright debilitating. The Hospice of the Western Reserve explains that there are a number of emotions that may occur when a person loses a loved one to addiction:

  • Sadness due to not being able to say goodbye
  • Anger at oneself or their loved one for the addiction
  • Guilt, as a person replays in their mind the “what ifs” and “should haves”
  • Shame, especially at having loved a person with addiction
  • Isolation and loneliness – which could stem from any of these gut-wrenching emotions
  • Relief – it’s possible that the death of a loved one now opens more chances to breathe, and a person no longer has to worry about receiving a devastating call
  • Frustration if an individual feels that more could be done to have helped a person
  • Blaming oneself for not having done or said something different
  • Fear and anxiety, especially because the future may feel quite unknown without their loved one in it

These emotions are normal reactions to losing someone we love – but it doesn’t make the grieving process any less difficult. In 1969, a psychiatrist by the name of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross developed a 5-stage grieving process alongside David Kessler, an author and psychiatrist. Together, they created the following process that clearly identifies that stages of grief that we all go through:

Stage 1: Denial – in helping us survive the loss, denial may cause us to feel numb. This is when we first start to grieve, but denial helps us pace our emotions.

Stage 2: Anger – as we start to explore the reality of losing our loved one, we may become very angry. We may blame God or another Higher Power, others or ourselves.

Stage 3: Bargaining – by this stage, we’re willing to do just about anything to bring our loved one back. We may promise to devote ourselves to volunteering for a good cause, and we may replay different “what if” scenarios in our head, wishing that we could change the outcome.

Stage 4: Depression – we may start to surface back to the present reality, and this is when true sorrow sinks in. We feel confused, and we may even wonder if we’ll be able to carry on with our lives.

Stage 5: Acceptance – this stage doesn’t mean that we’re happy about the outcome of our loved one, but it does mean that we’re beginning to understand that we can’t change what’s happened.

Tips for Healing

Mourning the loss of a loved one is incredibly difficult. Suddenly, a person we’ve grown to include in our lives has vanquished – and it can feel as if we’ll never be able to move on. As you’re grieving the death of your loved one, it’s important to be gentle with yourself. Provide yourself the time, space and patience needed to work through whatever it is that needs it. Continue to surround yourself with social support, whether it’s through therapy, Al-Anon programs, volunteerism, church-related activities or something similar. Find healthy ways to take each day one step at a time, even if it’s through reading, listening to music, going for walks, etc.

Dr. Elizabeth Hartney, a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada, told Very Well Mind in 2018 that friends and family should avoid criticizing anyone or telling the grieving individual what to do; mourning is unique to the person and they should walk through it at their own pace.

If you’re ready to seek help, speak with a professional from Cumberland Heights today.

Cumberland Heights is a nonprofit alcohol and drug-addiction treatment center located on the banks of the Cumberland river in Nashville, Tennessee. On a sprawling 177-acre campus, we are made up of 2 12-Step immersion campuses, 12 outpatient recovery centers and 4 sober living homes. We believe that each person has a unique story to tell – and that’s why we always put the patient first.