Grieving the Loss of Addiction: Understanding and Supporting Your Loved One

You’ve spent years worrying about your loved one’s addiction—and now they have finally completed treatment. You expect them to return home transformed, recognizing their history of self-destruction, and disavowing their previous lifestyle. But while you see significant change and sobriety, you also see something else: grief. Interspersed with excitement about the possibility of sober life and freedom from addiction, you see your loved one missing their addiction and behaving the way they would had they lost a dear friend or a lover.

Mourning the loss of addiction is a normal and common experience many people go through as part of the recovery process. For the loved ones of those in recovery, this can be a confusing, disorienting, and even frightening thing to witness, and it is common to mistake mourning as a threat to your loved one’s commitment to sobriety. It can be tempting to respond to this grieving process with anger, outrage, or sadness, but doing so is often deeply detrimental to your loved one’s recovery process. By understanding why people grieve the loss of addiction, you are able to better support your loved one during the early stages of recovery to encourage long-term sobriety and help them heal from their pain.

What Is There to Grieve?

To you, your loved one’s substance abuse has always been the enemy, causing you countless sleepless nights, boundless worry, and overwhelming despair. Finally breaking free from that addiction has no downside in your eyes; it is an uncomplicated good and it can be difficult to understand what there is to grieve.

However, your loved one has a fundamentally different relationship with their substance abuse. After all, no one starts using drugs because drugs feel bad; substance use has given them something that they felt they needed, and however unhealthy their use may have been, it reflected a very real and meaningful pathway toward something they desired. As addiction takes hold, that substance comes to be the sun around which their world revolves, taking on extraordinary importance. For many, drugs become a best friend and a constant companion, replacing healthy connections and support systems. The loss of that relationship can be deeply distressing and trigger a grieving process much like that experienced following the death of a close friend, even if your loved one understands the necessity of severing ties with their substance use and creating a sober life. As Ned Presnall explains:

Most people associate grief with death—that experience of facing the world when someone we love is no longer in it. But people also grieve divorce, job loss, and geographic separation—any change through which a core attachment is severed. By the time people come to treatment, drugs or alcohol have become a core attachment in their lives—something they rely on to get through the day and to feel ‘normal.’

Dr. David Sack adds:

The activity that has been the central focus of their lives is now something they can never do again. The only comfort they have known is gone, and their life requires a complete overhaul. That’s a lot to take in, especially at a time when they are least prepared in terms of ego strength and coping skills.

At the same time, loss of substance use itself (and the euphoria associated with it) isn’t the only component of grieving the loss of addiction. Some other common sources of grief include:

  • No longer being a part of the community in which they used.
  • Losing relationships with other users and the rituals use involved.
  • Losing the ability to deny or escape reality.
  • Having to face the consequences of their actions and cope with shame, disappointment, and sadness.
  • Losing a sense of self that revolved around drug use.

Being able to freely express the complex, painful, and difficult feelings that arise during addiction recovery can be vital to the healing process and play a central role in laying a strong foundation of ongoing emotional wellness—they need to be allowed to grieve.

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Supporting Your Loved Through Their Grief

Early recovery is a highly vulnerable stage for those recovering from addiction and their loved ones. While substance use is over, you must now learn how to pick up the pieces and form new, healthy relationships while respecting each other’s needs at this emotional and transitional time. Learning how to support both your loved one and yourself is critical to creating a positive recovery experience and ensuring that your needs are met:

Allow Your Loved One to Heal

Give your loved one the space they need to engage in their own recovery. Healing from addiction is an intense and highly personal process in which each individual must fundamentally redefine themselves and learn how to live in the world as a sober person. This means they must have the opportunity to explore their own feelings and thoughts and experience themselves free from the influence of drugs and alcohol. Hovering, smothering, and constantly monitoring them can cause unnecessary stress and strain your relationship.

Offer Your Support

Tell your loved one that you understand and respect their grieving process and are there for them if they need support. What that support looks like may be different for each person and may change over time; it could be as simple as having you listen as they talk through their mourning and acknowledge their loss, confusion, or anger. It could mean helping them implement their continuing care plan, driving them to meetings, or attending family or couples therapy sessions to help you strengthen your relationship and gain a deeper understanding of each other. The support of family and friends is known to be a critical component of long-term sobriety and overall psychological well-being, and creating an open and loving environment for them to express uncomfortable and difficult feelings is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your loved one.

Recognize Your Own Pain

While your loved one is grieving their own loss of addiction, you may be experiencing a different kind of grief. Often, those who are close to someone struggling with addiction are so preoccupied by trying to get their loved one into treatment and moving from crisis to crisis during active addiction that you do not have the time to process the full emotional impact their addiction has had on your life. For many, it is only during and after treatment that you have the space to truly see the effect of addiction, understand the loss addiction has created in your life, and gain a clear picture of any unhealthy relationship dynamics you have been a part of. At the same time, early recovery can bring its own set of concerns and worries, particularly if treatment has been unsuccessful in the past. Getting support for your own healing process via family and friends, therapy, support groups, or attending a specialized Family Program can be critical to ensuring that you are able to heal from the impact of addiction, develop a healthier relationship with your loved one, and find resolution for your own distress.

While grieving the loss of addiction can look scary from the outside, it is a sign of healing; it means that your loved one is moving through the recovery process and entering into a new phase of their lives. By standing by them through this stage of healing, you can both nurture their recovery and fortify your relationship to create a new, more joyful future.

Alta Mira is renowned for its comprehensive range of addiction treatment programs. We use the most modern, effective therapies available to help people struggling with addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addiction find relief from their pain and freedom from substance abuse. Contact us for more information about our innovative programs and how we can help you or your loved on start the journey toward lasting sobriety.