Notes on Ambiguous Grief


I’m sure if you’re reading this it’s because you may love someone who is or has struggled with substance use, and you fear for their life.  With addiction we see our loved one but we can barely recognize them, or they’ve become someone so changed by addiction, doing things they never would have done otherwise.  They’re physically living, but not quite here, and we fear them dying.  This is what is called Ambiguous Grief.

Of course we know that at some time, some way, we all die, but we also can learn to fear death. And we fear it even more when we love someone whose substance use and behavior is so risky that it really could result in death on any given day, it's constant and intense grieving.  It’s a reality that is hard to come to terms with, which brings us to grieving the living, grieving lost dreams, grieving the way we used to be, grieving many things.  Yet, it is not like the conventional death, there are no casseroles or memorial services, sometimes there are no people showing up at the door just to hold our hands, there are no condolence cards, and it can make us feel very alone, even resentful.

But and unfortunately, we are not alone at all.  We share this grief among millions of others who also love someone struggling in addiction.  We hear statements like “they died too young”, “children shouldn’t die before their parents”, “they shouldn’t have died, and not like that” … yet it all happens in its own time, we didn't choose any of it, and we did not get a vote on it, nor in the way it happens, and we are left to grieve it.  In that grieving, it is possible and common to experience anger and guilt, so many deep emotions.  I invite you to bring your attention to the comments above in quotes:  none of them are the whole truth though are they?  Because notice again:  It is in fact a reality that people do die at all ages, parents do outlive their children, death happens for a variety of logical reasons, and we can and do speak out of pain words that when calmer we would not have spoken.  But when we’re in that mindset, we feel even worse and then can might condemn ourselves for saying certain comments or just not handling it well.  Please forgive it and know it is normal.  Give yourself compassion.  It consumes a lot of energy to grieve and like addiction, we can say and do things that in other circumstances we wouldn’t.  

Please be willing to know that your love is safe and continuous.  You were created as love, you can't take it out of you. Even addiction can not have the power of the love in you, the love that you are, and the love that your loved one is, also created as love.  Those painful thoughts and words do not change the love either.  Love is indestructible.

So, how does one handle grief that can be so pervasive and overwhelming? 
1.  Allow your grief
Allow your emotions.  If you need to make time to vent, to cry, yell, drop to the floor then do that.  It’s no secret that you experience grief (at the very least to you) so don’t keep it a secret.  It’s perfectly ok to state that you’re grieving, having an “off” day (and consider that it’s not off as your emotions are valid – it is grief).  Sure it’s ideal that people will acknowledge and support you, but that might not happen.  It’s your grief and you can be with yourself and take care of you, and without their acknowledgement.  Be true to yourself, do not run from or try to numb your grief.  Honor it.  It is sacred, and there because you love. People will understand, acknowledge, support you or they don’t.  Find someone else to talk to if necessary.  If no one is available at any given time, use a journal or paper to write out your thoughts and emotions to express your grief.
2.  Take your time.
Grieving is a process, and it takes time, maybe the rest of your life, it comes and goes, shows up out of the blue, and you do not have to solve it or make it go away.  When mixed with conscious choices and effort, the experiences in our daily lives can shift,  as well as our emotions.  We eventually can find ourselves back in our routines and choosing life and even joy.  And if not, it may be time for professional intervention.  Do not let your grief continue without your care and attention.  When doing so, and it’s not changing, get help.
3.  Get support
Find people who can support you and listen while you speak of your grief, speak about your loved one, your memories, your confusion or pain.  Request their silent listening.  Often people just want to know how to help and feel awkward not knowing, so help you and help them by honestly requesting what you need.  Keep looking until you find those people.  Take yourself to support groups where they do understand because they share similar circumstances.  (The Invitation to Change, SMART Recovery, Al-anon, Nar-anon, NAMI, etc)
4.  Remember
Your loved one is under the layers of addiction but that doesn’t mean they are gone.  If you can at any time broaden a spiritual perspective, your loved one can be found in your heart, at least.  Remember the love shared and savor it.  Addiction does not change that kind of love, and it does not change good memories.  Cherish those positive memories, record them in a journal, create a scrapbook of photos, whatever you can to hold your memories dear so you can remember times that filled your heart with love and joy.  That was real too.
5.  Your loved one is not their condition

Even though their behavior, appearance, attitudes and words can be hurtful or significantly different, they are still a person who needs grace and connection as they probably feel so lost. They still need and want love.  Disconnection is part of addiction.  So stay connected to your own heart and love.  At the very least, send it silently out to reach your loved one whether you know where they are or not. Of course it’s normal to still feel anger, frustration, or blame toward the person, but understanding the reality of addiction can divert some of those feelings.

6.  Be open to change

Life and circumstances have changed, yet most likely you did not ask for any of it.  You are now at a place to make a deliberate choice to change your perspective, and in doing so, change the relationship with your loved one.  It may be very hard to accept the choices of your loved one and how they are living.  Still, you can connect with love, honest communication, and skills when educated and supported through and because of addiction.  This perspective can not only help you in relationship with your addicted loved one, but in all relationships.  Be open to changing your perspective and inviting some joy and into your life, this will help keep you more balanced and available to meet life and its challenges (and its joys too and please give that permission).  Be open to allowing some joy and gratitude.
 7.  Choose

Consider ways to honor your loved one’s life by choosing life and choosing joy in their honor.  My son told me “Mom please make yourself happy.  I really want you to be happy, and I can’t do that for you.  I’ll make it or I won’t, but I want you to do that for me, and do that for you.”  I understood the reality and what he said rings very true, that my son could not possibly take on the task of my happiness when he could not do that for himself.  Though we can feel happier around people and situations, happiness is an inside job.  We can’t do it for another, and another can’t do it for us.   At some point, our deliberate choice to choose life and joy may present itself.  When we choose this, we are better able to actually connect with our loved one and to ourselves.
Without doubt, you will need to be educated about addiction and it’s manifestations that might very well show up.  You will need to take care of your emotional, physical and spiritual state. You will need to focus on your own recovery, you will need to learn a different and more effective way of communicating with your loved one, you will need to develop a plan, and practice much like the way your loved one must to sustain recovery.  You will need to make difficult choices to choose life, to choose joy and self-care so you are available to love in such a way that can be helpful to your loved one, and yourself.   The choices may be challenging at times especially during crisis.  Remember, your emotions are valid and you will need to take care of yourself with compassion.  Of course, you may continue to experience the grief because the nature of  addiction is that there is risk, but as long as there is breath there is hope. Taking action for you can inspire that kind of hope, and transfer to your dear child.

As you take care of your grief in this way, you may begin to notice that the grief is no longer consuming your days, and there will be more and more moments where grief can co-exist with the peace, love and joy you are creating despite of and because of addiction.  There may be more and more moments that you are now identifying with peace, love and joy and not even aware of the grief.  Know that nothing remains the same through out time.  Notice the natural ebb and flow.  As in nature, sometimes the tide is in and sometimes it is out.  As it will be with your grief.  Allow for the tides to come in and re-connect to life and love.  This lights the way for you and lights a path for your loved one to find you too.  And always love remains!