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Grief Has No Expiration Date (Part 1)

The Many Forms of Loss for Families  

Parents find their young adult daughter in her room dead from a drug overdose.  A mother is called by a paramedic who tells her that her son has overdosed and that he may not live.  She stayed all night in the hospital talking with her son, playing music and praying that he would wake up.  After he died, she begged and pleaded with God to bring him back.   A father is told that his daughter died from convulsions after using the drug Molly at a concert.  Parents were called when their son was admitted to a trauma unit after getting drunk and falling from a crawl space high up in a Church, hitting his head on a pew and going into a coma. He died a few days later from a traumatic brain injury.  Two young women die in a car crash as the driver of the car they were in was drunk.  A mother’s 6-year old daughter and 61-year old mother are killed by a drunk driver while all three of them were walking on a sidewalk. 

These and many similar stories of loss are far too common, and affect the lives of many people, often in profound ways.  The emotional turmoil and grief are intense, changing lives forever.  Statistics and data can never convey the pain and suffering of a family who loses a loved one, especially at a young age. 

Death from drug overdoses, accidents, suicides, homicides, and medical complications of diseases caused or worsened by substance use and addictions are rampant in the U.S.  Over 60,000 people die each year from drug overdoses (most from opioids) and nearly 100,000 die from alcohol related problems. In addition to those with a substance problem who die, many innocent victims also die, as evident in the examples above.  


Losses Due to Addiction

With an addiction, two types of losses are common.  The first is the loss of a loved one during the active phase of addiction when he or she is controlled by drugs and is unable to function as a responsible family member.  Since addiction hijacks their brain and influences behavior, addicts are never fully present because they focus on getting and using drugs.  During active addiction, family members worry, feel angry, depressed, anxious or despondent.  I know of cases in which families cut all ties with their addicted member due to the pain they experienced over many years.  One father told his son to get his Social Security number tattooed on his arm so he could be easily identified if he died from a drug overdose.  This father clearly was worried and angry at his son.

The second loss is when a loved one dies.  This often hits family members like a ton of bricks, even if they knew this could happen. Sadness, depression and despair are common.  When one mother found out that her son died from an overdose she said “I felt as if I was having an out of body experience. This could not be happening to me. I immediately fell to the floor in so much pain, disbelief, shock, sadness and enough anxiety to kill me.  My panic was off the charts, I felt like a hummingbird was in my chest. I was unable to settle myself.   My grief was so deep I really just wanted to die also.”  Another parent said “I was very angry with God.  I felt darkness around me for the first two years.   Maybe longer.  Such anger.  How could this happen to such a sweet boy.”    

Losing an adolescent or young adult child shatters the parent’s world, changes their perspective, and affects their emotions and moods, relationships, and how they function.  Losing a sibling is also difficult and painful for brothers or sisters left behind.  

Most of family members I know did many things to try to help their loved one during the active addiction.  Yet many feel guilty and wonder if they could have done more to prevent their early death. 


Other Losses Associated with Addiction

Death is one type of loss associated with addiction.  Other losses that hurt families include loss of family stability, family cohesion, loss of the feeling of safety due to violent or unpredictable behavior, loss of trust, loss of a parent who cannot function as a responsible adult, or loss of a sibling who cannot be counted on.  The loss of a parent is tragic for a child who does not get the consistency, love, nurturing and mentoring needed to cope with the demands of life.  And the financial burden creates feelings of insecurity or puts families deeply in debt.  I know parents who borrowed large sums of money, took out second mortgages, or withdrew money from retirement accounts to pay for rehabilitation programs for their son or daughter. 


Grief Has No Expiration Date

All phases of grief present difficulties, but the early period is especially intense. Many people experience grief for years.  Even as they heal, they always feel their loss and remember vividly what happened to their loved one.  They learn to “live with” grief rather than “get over it.”  Emotions are especially strong during family holidays, birthdays and anniversaries.  One parent said, “People think after a certain amount of time you are better,” which implies they think healing has a time limit.  As one parent stated, “Grief has no expiration date, it hurts all the time.” 

Avoiding friends and family are common.  One mother said, “When I did leave my house I felt a need to come home after a short period of time.  I went from periods of panic to being so quiet I wondered if I would ever be able to speak again. I could not deal with the world outside of my home. I had no social life outside of friends who were experiencing the same life as me. I was now from a different planet. People of this earth could not understand me.” 

These intense and persistent emotions affect physical as well as mental health as the person tries to understand and make sense of what happened and why it happened.  One mother stated, “I was sad, angry, in denial, depressed, crazy, panic stricken, any or all of these feelings in one day, sometimes in one hour, one minute.”  Many had difficulty sleeping, lost their appetite, had to force themselves to get out of bed and had to push themselves to take care of other children or go to work.  Some even sometimes felt so despondent that they wished they would die. 

Despite the pain and traumatic grief, family members learn to live with it and move forward.  In the second part of this blog, I will discuss what family members and others can do to cope with their grief.  Many show resilience despite the difficulties faced in adjusting to the significant loss of a loved one. 



This article was adapted from:  Daley, Dennis C. (2017).  Grief Has No Expiration Date, Part 1: Losing a Loved one to Addiction.  Counselor, Vol 18(4), pp 19-21.