Grieving Someone Still Living

Losing A Loved One To Addiction

In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the world to the five stages of grief. Since then, ideas about what it means to grieve and how we grieve as individuals has evolved significantly. While grief tends to center on death and how we process that loss, anyone who has suffered the deep and intense feelings of losing someone they love in either a physical or ideological sense — through divorce, disease, addiction, sexuality, or incarceration, just to name a few — know that death is not the only way that people experience emotions related to grief. In modern society, addiction in particular plays an ever critical role in these unconventional experiences with grief.

What is Grief?

Grief traditionally was posited as a five-stage process of mourning the loss of a loved one. It included denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, but was often taken out of context to imply that every person experiences grief with those emotions and in that order. Later models include emotions like shock, disbelief, guilt, and hope in addition to the original five. However, most experts agree that research does not support grief as a linear process, and individual circumstances may preclude any or all of these emotions. To say the least, grief is a complicated thing.

Unfortunately, the stages of grief have become folklore to the point that many may feel they are failing or will never get better if they recognize they are not transitioning through the various emotions in the correct order. Understanding that grief is a very individualized thing, and that there is no correct order or wrong emotional response, can often help those experiencing its emotions to overcome them in a more authentic way.

Americans die every day
from opioid overdoses

Grief Without Death

While the original conclusions about grief focused on its relationship to death, that isn’t always the cause in modern society. As mentioned previously, there are many reasons someone might experience grief. Knowing some of those reasons can help us identify relevant emotions, and better process them when we experience them. Grief can be caused by many things, including:

There are many reasons someone might experience grief.

Losing a close relative

Losing a pet

Losing a job

Losing financial stability

Becoming disabled

Experiencing a miscarriage

Discovering infertility

Getting divorced or ending a romantic relationship

A child moving out

A loved one committing a crime or being imprisoned

A loved one suffering from addiction

A loved one being deployed

Finding out a loved one is LGBTQIA+

Finding out a loved one has a serious disease

Giving up a cherished dream (like being a professional athlete)

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Losing a close relative

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Losing a pet

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Losing a job

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Losing financial stability

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Becoming disabled

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Experiencing a miscarriage

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Discovering infertility

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Divorce or end of a romantic relationship

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A child moving out

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A loved one committing a crime or being imprisoned

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A loved one suffering from addiction

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A loved one being deployed

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Finding out a loved one is LGBTQIA+

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Learning a loved one has serious disease

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Giving up a cherished dream (like becoming a professional athlete)

While this list is not exhaustive, one important consideration is the impact of addiction. With the national opioid overdose crisis killing 115 Americans each day, it is safe to say that most, if not all, Americans know someone facing the horrors of addiction. Its broad reach has affected families of every socioeconomic background all across the country. Desperation is so great amongst addicts who need a fix that some have resulted to abusing loperamide, a common over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medication, to experience a similar high. Those who are lucky enough not to be directly affected by the opioid epidemic may know someone who is addicted to alcohol, sex, gambling, or other drugs.

Struggling to Cope

Addiction touches entire families and communities, not just the person who is addicted. This fact makes clear why those families might experience grief as they mourn the loss of their loved one — not always to death, but to something that steals their potential, their life force, their smile, their personality, their ability to reason, and all of the things they knew and loved about them before addiction took over their life.

Oftentimes, families struggle to deal with the grief surrounding addiction. Initially, it is isolated to the changes in physical and emotional behaviors of a person they love, but this can quickly escalate to losing a job, financial instability, incarceration, disease, or even death. These triggers quickly compound the grief that the family is exposed to, and can often lead to a vicious cycle of emotions that ebbs and flows with the addiction.

Many start out in denial because no one wants to believe their loved one is an addict.

Denial

Many families start out in denial. No one wants to believe their loved one is an addict. This can go on as long as the addict can hide the truth and convince their relatives they don’t have a problem.

Many start out in denial because no one wants to believe their loved one is an addict.
Family members may feel guilt or even blame themselves when the addiction becomes undeniable.

Guilt

When the addiction becomes undeniable, such as when a loved one begins stealing from family members to support their addiction, or when they are arrested, hospitalized, or some other catalyst makes it obvious, family members may feel guilt or even blame themselves for what has happened.

Anger generally occurs once the family has accepted their loved one has a problem.

Anger

Anger generally occurs once the family has accepted their loved one has a problem. It is seen as almost a distraction from the reality of what might happen as a result of the addiction. The anger may even be misguided, depending on their ability to rationalize the situation and hold the addict accountable for their behavior.

Anger generally occurs once the family has accepted their loved one has a problem.
Families often try to offer incentives to entice the loved one not to use or to seek addiction treatment.

Bargaining

Families often try to offer incentives to entice the loved one not to use or to seek treatment. In some recovery programs, incentivizing the addict to stay in the program is helpful; however, it is not a useful tactic for getting someone into recovery. Sometimes, bargaining is directed at a higher power instead of the addict. If only the higher power will make the loved one stop using, the person pleading will provide something in exchange.

The most common emotion felt during grief is depression and is the hardest to overcome.

Depression

The most common emotion felt during grief is depression. This is the hardest to overcome or move on from, and is often the result of lifestyle changes made in order to allow everything in the family’s life to revolve around the needs of the addict. The effects of depression can be grave if it is left unchecked, and can even result in substance abuse among those suffering.

The most common emotion felt during grief is depression and is the hardest to overcome.
While acceptance is the hardest to achieve, those who do realize the situation is beyond their control.

Acceptance

While many families never reach acceptance, those who do realize the situation is beyond their control. Some find this through support groups or therapy, though it can sometimes be misconstrued as giving up on their loved on. Others eventually find it from losing their loved one to death.

These emotions are not experienced in a linear fashion, and may be repeated more than once depending on the type and severity of the addiction, along with any attempts at recovery. It is also important to note that addictions with a higher associated risk of death often cause more intense feelings of grief in general.

Recovery & Relapse

Those who do find their way to recovery offer their family a chance to relinquish the emotions caused by grief and focus on something other than the addiction, at least temporarily. Recovery often provides comfort, especially if their loved one is in a treatment program, and they know for sure they are currently not using. However, the fear of relapse is often a permanent condition. Previous relapses can amplify these feelings, and trust can be difficult to rebuild. For those who genuinely believed the addiction had been beaten, the relapse of a loved one can be devastating, and send them straight back into a cycle of grieving.

It is important to understand how grief works, and how the various emotions might play out in an individualized way.

While it is important to understand how grief works, and how the various emotions might play out in an individualized way, it is also important to consider why grief is occurring. Grief is occurring because a loss has occurred. It might be the loss of an idea or a notion about a person, a connection with them, or about something specific that has transpired as a result of their addiction. Regardless of the trigger or how the grief is manifesting, getting past it takes realizing that things will never be the same again. That’s not to say things will never be good again — they will just never be exactly as they were before the grief started.

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