Coping With the Loss of a Fellow Addict
“The death of a loved one to the disease of addiction is one of the most heart-wrenching experiences in recovery, and the feelings of shame, anger, guilt and despair that come up can overwhelm us,” says Patricia Meyers, CCDC, who is Executive Director of Alumni & Client Services at the renowned Promises addiction treatment center in California. “A loss like this can compromise our thinking, making it seem like a good idea to go get loaded. But relapse is not inevitable, nor does it have to be every recovering addict’s story. The silver lining in the tragedy of losing a fellow addict is to honor that person by staying clean and sober ourselves and by helping others to do so.”
Special Challenges That Grieving Addicts May Encounter
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the leading cause of unintentional injury death in 2014 was drug overdose. These statistics point to the very real possibility that people in recovery may at some point have to deal with losing a fellow addict.
When we lose someone to addiction, we often wonder if we could have done something to somehow save them. According to grief experts, it is important to allow ourselves to have these feelings — even though there was very likely nothing we could have done — because these feelings are part of the grief process we must go through in order to assimilate and accept the loss.
Additionally, allowing ourselves to “feel the feelings” is a key component of addiction recovery — learning to experience emotions rather than trying to diminish or self-medicate them with alcohol or other drugs. All of the feelings that come up during the grieving process are “normal” and we should permit ourselves to have them.
Losing a fellow addict can make the recovery process more challenging since a person in recovery may be grieving more than one loss. Feelings of grief aren’t exclusively associated with death. Other events or situations can bring up feelings of grief, including a chronic illness (grieving the loss of health in one’s self or a loved one), divorce or separation (sometimes when a grown child leaves home) or the loss of a home.
Giving up an addiction is in itself a grieving process. In giving up a substance, the addict is essentially giving up a “friend” they have depended on to get them through difficult times. However destructive it may have been, the loss of the coping mechanism can be experienced as a loss in the addict’s life.
Grief Is a Process
There are many models or theories about how we grieve, and different therapists may approach the process differently. Perhaps the most famous grief model involves the concept of five stages of grief, which were first outlined in the seminal 1969 book On Death and Dying, by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler Ross. Based on her experiences with terminally ill patients, Dr. Kubler Ross recognized that when any of us face a loss, we typically go through alternating cycles of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
There is no linear pattern to these stages, and each of us might experience them in different ways and in a different order. Even after we reach acceptance, one or more of the stages of grief can return when memories of our loved one come back to us on anniversaries or are triggered when we encounter certain places, smells, sights, sounds or other stimuli.
In Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, a book by mental health practitioner William Worden, a slightly different model of the grieving process is outlined. According to Worden, we all must go through four “tasks of mourning” including: 1) Accept the reality of the loss; 2) Work through the pain of grief; 3) Adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing; and 4) Find an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life. Like other theories, everyone experiences these “tasks” differently and according to different time frames.
Processing Grief Without Jeopardizing Your Recovery
So how can you work through the stages of grief while safeguarding your hard-won sobriety? Here are a few tips:
Get Support. People in recovery who lose someone to addiction may want to seek additional counseling for grief, either through one-on-one therapy sessions or in a group, to get extra support and guidance in working through feelings of loss. One way to find a grief support group in your area is to contact Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing, or GRASP, an organization that helps people who have lost someone to addiction. Attending additional self-help support group meetings may help prevent isolation and keep you connected with others. In addition to talking through your feelings in therapy or support group sessions, daily journaling about your feelings of loss could help you process them.
Turn Loss Into Learning. For people in early recovery, the loss of a fellow addict can be a shock — and also a wake-up call that it could have been them. It can be helpful for addicts to use a friend’s death to this disease as a message to be fully dedicated to working their recovery program and get immediate help if they detect signs of impending relapse. It also encourages addicts in recovery to lean on one another for support. The disease of addiction can be very isolating, and therein lies one of its dangers, so fellowship is key.
“We must be extra vigilant during this time as we are at high risk for relapse and depression,” says Meyers. “We should stay close to our recovery community or ‘sober squad’ by returning to our regular meeting where people know and love us, and we can reach out for extra support by getting involved in a grief group where we can share our experiences and acknowledge our feelings. It is very important that we do not isolate in response to the loss.”
Practice Healthy Self-Care. To help avoid crisis while grieving the loss of a fellow addict it is important to focus on taking even better care of yourself. You might consider signing up for yoga or fitness classes to help you quiet your mind and center your emotions. You might invite a friend over for healthy home-cooked meals, or ask another friend to go walking with you every week so you can benefit from the healing power of nature.
Accept Your Own Process. Ultimately, taking care of yourself during the grieving process means being honest and gentle with yourself about your sense of loss, allowing yourself to have the feelings, and also understanding that there is no set time frame for how long the grieving process should take. It helps to remember that others are grieving the loss, too, and reaching out to them can be as healing for you as it is for them.
Be of Service. Meyers notes that the greatest honor for the loss of a loved one to the insidious disease of addiction is to “pay it forward” by helping other addicts through service that takes us out of ourselves. “Work with others and share your experience, your strength and your hope — we never know who needs to hear the message of recovery after the death of a loved one,” she says.
Celebrate Life. To help process a personal loss, Meyers also recommends honoring the friend or loved one by celebrating their life with a tribute of all their favorite things and people. She suggests that part of the tribute can involve making a collage of pictures and notes from friends to give to the person’s family. Another way to help in the grieving process is to honor a loved one while helping others avoid the same fate. Get involved in a nonprofit whose mission is alcohol and drug abuse prevention, and dedicate your efforts to your friend or loved one.