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Coping With the Loss of an Addicted Family Member

Most of us survive and do well over the long run. There is no need to suffer alone as recovery is a "we" and not an "I" process. Many people are willing to support us. All we need to do is open up and let them in our lives.
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"I light this candle for my dad who died when I was 3 years old" said a young boy at the recent annual Vigil sponsored by the Bridge-to-Hope support program for families with an addicted member. He was one of about 100 who lit a candle in memory of a lost loved one or, in some cases, the loss of 2 or 3 loved ones to addiction. I can tell you this is a heart wrenching experience as it shows the pain of those left behind when an addicted member dies from an overdose, accident, suicide, homicide, or medical complication. Think about what it is like for this boy to grow up without his father.

In the last decade there has been a 5-fold increase in deaths from heroin overdose, and a 3-fold increase in deaths from prescription opioid pain relievers. According to the National Institute on Health, in 2013 over 16,000 people died from an overdose of opioid pain relievers, and over 8,000 died from a heroin overdose.

While the focus on opioid addiction has increased significantly in recent years, we have to remember that many people die from nicotine or alcohol addiction. And, many die from accidents caused by a single episode of drinking too much. Consider the following examples.

• A group of college athletes were acting wild in the middle of the night in a Church after drinking heavily. After midnight, one young man went to the crawl space high up in the church. While crawling on a ledge in the dark, he fell through the insulation, and hit his head on a church pew 30 feet below. He died several days later from severe head trauma. He was a man any parent would be proud to have for a son because he was a hard worker and well liked by others

• A young woman tweeted a note that said she was too drunk to care. Later than night, she wrecked her car causing the death of two friends. She was sentenced to 24 years in prison.

• A colleague of mine was walking on a sidewalk in a small town with her 6 year old daughter and 61 year old mother when a drunk driver lost control, drove onto the sidewalk, and killed her daughter and mother in front of her.

Just imagine the emotional and psychological pain that family members experience after losing a loved one to addiction or an accident caused by excessive alcohol use. Many lives were changed forever due to these episodes of intoxication on alcohol. These traumatic events affect not only the drinker, but family members and innocent bystanders. We must remember that alcohol is the number one drug problem in the U.S. despite most of the attention being paid to opioids or club or synthetic drugs like Molly, spice or K2.

Other Losses Associated with Addiction

Death is just one of the many losses associated with addiction. Having grown up in an alcoholic family, and having worked with thousands of addicted people or their families, I can tell you there are many other losses that are painful for family members. These include the loss of family stability, family cohesion, loss of trust, or loss of a parent who cannot function as a responsible adult. The loss of a parent can be tragic for a child who does not get the consistency, love, nurturing and mentoring needed by this parent to cope with the demands of life. Many family members have told me they felt cheated, ashamed, guilty, anxious, depression or angry. The emotional burden is overwhelming. And, the financial chaos caused by addiction in the family often creates feelings of insecurity or puts families deeply in debt.

Getting Help and Support

We owe it to ourselves to get help and support to embark on our own course of recovery. Counseling can help us with anxiety, depression or other strong emotions like bitterness and rage. It can help us change our unhealthy behaviors, focus on our strengths and accomplishments, and worry less about our losses. Mutual support programs like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon or others can connect us to others suffering in similar ways who can share their hope and strength, and guide us in building resilience and learning coping skills. In recovery, we focus on our own needs and issues, and learn to soothe ourselves when distressed. We can learn to better understand the complicated disease of addiction, forgive our loved one, forgive ourselves (we can be very hard on ourselves), and live well in the present (which is the best way to deal with a difficult past).

Most of us survive and do well over the long run. There is no need to suffer alone as recovery is a "we" and not an "I" process. Many people are willing to support us. All we need to do is open up and let them in our lives. Trust me, you will be glad you did as you heal and grow. In a future writing, I will discuss ways to deal with grief since this is so common among family members who lose a loved one to an addiction.