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Processing a Special Kind of Grief from Substance Use Disorder

Addiction is a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use.  Your loved one might also have had a co-occurring mental health disorder such as depression, bi-polar disorder or anxiety disorder. They may have been self-medicating but experienced intense desires or cravings for the addictive substance and continued to use despite the harmful or dangerous consequences. The individual might have preferred the drug to other healthy pleasures and lost interest in normal life activities. They appeared to stop caring about their own or other’s well-being or survival. They struggled with their disease but, ultimately, the disease took their life. Whatever you did to tried to save them, you did your best because that is what love does.

Sadly, many in our society do not accept Substance Use Disorder as a brain disorder.  Instead they view it as a moral failing.  Anyone who has lost a loved one through substance use knows that society treats this loss differently than a death from any other cause. 

A loved one bereaved by a death from drugs or alcohol is likely to have even more complex and contradictory feelings than other bereaved people.  They may experience or feel:

  • liberation or relief that the addict will no longer overshadow their life with the unpredictability and abuse
  • extreme sadness about what might have been if the deceased had stopped using substances
  • guilt about the times they wished it could all be over
  • somehow responsible for bringing about the death of their loved one  
  • blame over what they missed or could have changed. They go over and over in their mind the “what if” or “if only”
  • embarrassment and humiliation by the actions they forgave such as theft, lying, physical or emotional abuse
  • shame over things that might have been said in anger and frustration in dealing with the substance use
  • relational changes and frustrations that occur, including feeling alone, misunderstood, isolated, and even rejected by those around

None of these feelings are wrong, and acceptance will help process them.

Each person’s journey with grief is different, and there are many factors that influence how intense the journey can be. These include: the relationship to the person who died, the manner of their death, the personality and coping skills of the bereaved, as well as other losses one has experienced in their life. Most people describe the first year or two as a blur, with intense emotions and a feeling of going through the motions. It is not uncommon to experience intense emotions in the second or third year following the death especially during holidays or milestones