Addiction touches most lives at some point. Whether you’ve personally faced it or have watched a family member or friend struggle with it, it’s on your radar. Only you know the true impact that it’s had on you. Perhaps addiction has cost you your job, relationship, freedom, vehicle or health. It might have led to incarceration or the death of a loved one. Perhaps what was once a casual relationship with a substance or behavior has taken over your life. What happens when the addiction sinks its claws into someone close to you, seeming inescapably? If this person’s life ends as a result, how do you live with the guilty feelings of “what if?” and “if only…” that might follow?
A Cocktail of Emotions
Recently, blogger Paula Ganzi Licata shared her story of watching her husband succumb to the bottle after years of his life force trickle away drop by drop. She questioned whether she’d done too much — or not enough — to save his life. Did she enable by action or omission? Among her greatest challenges after his death was the shame she felt when people would question how he died. She found herself dancing around the truth, afraid of being judged or hurting his reputation, since he’d appeared high functioning. After his death, she was left to clean up after him, literally and symbolically. A sense of guilt by association is common for survivors of the substance-related deaths of spouses or children. Those left behind might ask themselves, “What does it say about me that I remained married to this person, or raised this child?” These feelings further complicate what’s already an unthinkably painful trauma. Survivors might continue to blame themselves for not being able to rescue their loved one, although it wasn’t their responsibility in the first place. In the same way those in 12-step recovery are reminded that they were powerless over their addiction, those who care about someone who has an addiction must likewise recognize that they’re powerless over the choices that person makes. A common emotion is anger — a person wonders how the loved one could create so much chaos, then leave behind the fragments for someone else to sweep up. These feelings of anger might be followed guilt over feeling angry, then resentment. The whirlwind progression can be quite dizzying. On top of these sometimes oppressive feelings is the experience of the loss itself. Someone the survivor has committed to loving is now absent. That person leaves behind a place in survivors’ hearts that can heal but can never be filled in the same way again. Isolation is also common, because survivors might feel as if no one else truly understands their experience. These feelings can be intensified by shame, which keeps them from talking about the loss.
A Model for Healing
In her book How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies, Therese A. Rando, PhD, offers guidance on healing after the death of a loved one. She proposes a model for coping that she calls “The Six R’s”:
- Recognize the loss: First, people must experience their loss and understand that it has happened.
- React: People will react emotionally to their loss.
- Recollect and re-experience: Survivors might review memories of their lost relationship, including events, places, or day-to-day moments they experienced together.
- Relinquish: People begin to put their loss behind them, realizing and accepting that the world has changed irreversibly.
- Readjust: People begin the process of returning to daily life. The loss starts to feel less acute and sharp.
- Reinvest: Ultimately, people re-enter the world, forming new relationships and commitments. They accept the changes and move past them.
Those who find themselves in this situation need not go it alone. In addition to 12-step groups such as Al-Anon or Co-Dependents Anonymous, there are grief-specific organizations such as GRASP and Grief Share. By reaching out for support and allowing others to reach in, it’s possible to stop cycles of blame and shame. By Edie Weinstein, LSW Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1