Grieving a Living Loved One - AddictionBy Ellen Kolton, MPH – SMART Recovery Family & Friends Facilitator

Someone dies. Life ends. Death is final. Grief begins. Bereavement is often a long, slow, and, of course, sad process.

But what about grieving someone who is still alive? Someone whose life is ruled by addictive behavior, leaving their loved ones helpless? This kind of grief may be easily recognized by people who find their lives dominated by the addictive behaviors of people they love.

Grieving a living loved one describes a life filled with anxiety, pain, worry, anger, and even shame.

Consider this anguished admission from a mother during a SMART Recovery group for Family & Friends: “I can’t take this anymore. Sometimes,” she whispers, “I just wish he would die.” Her son’s life is now consumed by his drug use. He dropped out of college, frequently loses his minimum-wage jobs when he doesn’t show up for work, and his only friends are dealers.

We are stunned by her comment. What kind of mother would ever wish that on her child? Surely she can’t actually wish her son dead.


Grieving the Loss of Hope for a Person

Her admission speaks to her despair and her inability to steer him in the direction that she expected: off to college to deepen his knowledge and allow his many strengths to ripen.  In the discussion, we helped her recognize that her death wish is a glaring reflection of her own helplessness—a feeling that is clearly becoming intolerable.

She is grieving the loss of hope for a person whose promise appears to be crumbling.

I’ve heard similar refrains from other participants at Family & Friends meetings:

  • “This is not the life that I signed up for,” says a young wife, the mother of two children. “I want to leave him, but we rely on his income. What would we do without him?”
  • “I thought she would stop drinking after we moved in together,” says an English professor, after marrying a brilliant young poet.
  • “I am not going to take her to the Emergency Room again,” says a husband about his wife of five years. “If she passes out again from drinking, I’m going to just call 911 and let her suffer the consequences.”

Grieving the Life You Imagined for Yourself

Beyond grieving the loss of a living person’s potential, it’s also grieving the life you imagined for yourself. Living with someone whose addictive behavior dominates their life–and therefore yours–is like watching a part of your own life die. The part that was connected to your hopes and dreams. The life you felt entitled to live.

Many people go into self-imposed isolation because of their loved one’s behavior. They avoid spending time with other family members and friends. They skip parties, weddings, and other social occasions. “People just don’t understand,” they say.

Can you make peace with the reality of the situation? Can you let go of your hopes? Can you ever forgive your loved one?

Reframing the issue

Acceptance starts with both accepting the reality of the situation and accepting your own limitations. You can’t change your loved one’s course, but you can remain supportive of their efforts to seek treatment, to focus on sobriety, and to work to avoid relapses.

You can start by reframing the conversation. Rather than trying to persuade (or nag or plead or beg) your loved one to change, you can speak for yourself. “I am upset by your [addictive behavior]” rather than “you are ruining your/my life.”  In short, this is the route to acceptance.

You can make a conscious decision to separate your love for the person from the behavior of the person. It’s important to remember that they are not trying to hurt you or others by their addictive behavior.  People do recover in their own time, in their own way.

Changing your focus

Once you begin to accept the difficult reality, you can turn to caring for yourself. It doesn’t mean rejecting your loved one; it means prioritizing your own needs. While this may sound counterintuitive, as you make an effort to resume activities you enjoy, you model what a good life looks like. It can actually lessen the guilt that your loved one feels when they think about how their behavior is affecting you.

The SMART Recovery Family & Friends handbook talks about guiding versus trying to steer:

“Consider a lighthouse. It stands on the shore with its beckoning light, guiding ships safely into the harbor. The lighthouse can’t uproot itself, wade out into the water, grab the ship by the stern and say, ‘listen you fool—if you stay on this path, you will break up on the rocks.’ No. The ship has some responsibility for its own destiny. It can choose to be guided by the light in the lighthouse, or it can go its own way. The lighthouse is not responsible for the ship’s decisions.”

And of course, confiding in trusted friends and/or family members or attending support group meetings is one avenue of self-care. To be heard and to choose to be among other people who understand how you feel is a powerful antidote to isolation.


About SMART Recovery Family & Friends

SMART Recovery Family & Friends helps those who are affected by substance abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, or other addictions of a loved one. Our program is a science-based, secular alternative to Al-Anon and the Johnson Intervention, and our method is based on the tools of SMART Recovery and CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training). CRAFT aims to teach family and friends self-protection and non-confrontational communication skills to help their addicted loved one find recovery.

You can find Family & Friends meetings in-person and online.

If you are interested in starting a Family & Friends meeting in your local area, we would love to hear from you. Please click here to learn more about starting a Family & Friends meeting.

Click here to read more about SMART Recovery Family & Friends.

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