If you have a loved one in your life who is an addict, your relationship with him or her is complex. There are roles you play: caretaker, coach, enabler, or simply a presence who’s always there. The interactions between you and the addict are hard to describe in simple terms because the relationship is complicated. There is another party in the middle that has a name. It’s called “Addiction.”
All the emotions that are connected with your relationship-role are as complex as the relationship you had. When your addict loved one dies, what your complicated feelings become harder to understand. You may have the following thoughts,
“I’m so sorry I did not help her more. I wish I did more. I could have saved him if I only I_____________”
“I’m her __________, I should have saved her.”
“I don’t want to admit it, but good riddance, she’s gone. She gave me so much trouble.”
Acute Grief, Normal Grief
For the first few weeks to a month after the death, you are what experts call “the acute grief stage”. At this time, you keep on thinking about your loved one. You may have dreams about this person, you may wish that you are with this person, and there is a constant nagging feeling of loss. It’s an emotionally painful time. You could even feel physically sick during this period. You lose your appetite, you lose your desire to live life. You might have a hard time sleeping, or you may feel like sleeping all day just to forget.
Integrated Grief, Normal Grief
Usually, people move on from the acute stage to the next stage, the integrated grief stage. If you are in this stage, you will feel that the impact of the loss has softened. Slowly, you have come to accept that the person you love is gone. You do not forget this person, but neither are you feeling bewildered that she’s gone. You remember very well the good and bad (and in-between) memories you have with this person…but now the memories are bittersweet because the person is gone.
The grief process is complete when survivors transition from the acute to the integrated stage. There is no exact timeframe because the circumstances surrounding the death and the relationships between the people involved are all different. What is crucial in the completion of the grief experience is the sense that a transition has happened—the surviving spouse, friend, or significant other has integrated the loss into their lives.
Complicated Grief or Prolonged Grief
But then there is “complicated grief” or “prolonged grief”. The American Psychological Association actually considers this type of grieving as an emerging mental health issue.
Addicts usually die of an overdose, and this type of death is unexpected and traumatic. People who experience the loss of a loved one through accidents, violent events, crime, and overdose are more prone to this disorder. To treat complex grief, mental health professionals recommend individual counselling (psychotherapy).
Complicated Grief is not Depression
We must differentiate complicated or prolonged grief with depression. Both conditions need to be treated but in different ways. Both are serious matters that cannot be changed just by “cheering up.” We must be aware though that sometimes grief can trigger depression in people who are already prone to the disorder.
One more thing that needs to mentioned about complex grief, particularly when the loved one is an addict is that there is a social stigma for the people who are left behind. When a loved one dies of an overdose, some people will hurl very insensitive comments. They can go like this,
“She’s an addict, of course, she overdosed. What did you expect to happen?”
“You should have done something about it.”
“He did it to himself.”
“At least you saw it coming.”
Statements like this fuel the blame and shame you may have in the first place. And because there is blame and shame, you don’t want to talk about it. Because you won’t talk about it, the process of grieving is delayed.
Coming out of grief
You are likely to find it harder to deal with your loss because it was all so sudden, and it seems like you have so many unanswered questions. To move forward in your grieving process, it is good to understand what key actions you need to complete.
Psychologist J W Worden, author of the book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner specifies tasks survivors need to accomplish to complete the process of grief:
- They need to accept the reality of their loss
- They need to work through the pain felt from grief
- They need to adjust to living life without their loved one
- They need to maintain a connection with their loved one as they move on with their lives.
In addition, these following measures are found to be beneficial in healing complex grief. These activities are most effective when you work with a compassionate counsellor or therapist.
- Psychoeducation (knowing about) the grief process
- Addressing the loved one with a letter about your life goals and dreams about the future
- Having an imaginary conversation with the loved one about how you are going to move on with your life
- Cognitive restructuring to overcome the thought that when you move on with your life, you are dishonouring your loved one
- Cognitive restructuring to overcome self-blame and self-stigma
- Some people also find renewed purpose in life by participating in events that educate others about the realities and dangers of drug addiction.
The process of completing the process of grief is different for everybody.
But survivors of addicted people need forgiveness the most. When blame and shame are present, it is difficult to think that there are people out there who share the same predicament as yours.
There are people out there in the same situation, and most of them can be found on-line (initially). If you take the first step and reach out, things only get easier.