Can You Grieve Someone While They’re Still Alive?

can you grieve someone when they're still alive

Have you ever grieved for someone nodding off across the room from you? I have. I remember looking at our son and thinking, “Where are you? Where have you buried that easy smile and gentle spirit?”

There is no other word for it but grief when your child is lost in the haze of substance use. My son is still alive, thank God, and this grief is not the same as the grief a parent feels should their child pass away. It’s not the kind of grief that brings people around with a show of condolences and support. It is a silent grief that no one talks about. It is buried in shame and despair. Nothing prepares you for the experience and certainly nothing prepares you for the deep sense of loss that enters your daily life. And so you grieve.

While I was grieving such things as the loss of spending meaningful time with my son and what appeared to be the end of all the hopes I had for him, I also began to wonder if I wasn’t subconsciously preparing myself for an unthinkable outcome. I knew my child was in mortal danger with his addiction. I seemed to be “trying on” what I feared the most — what would certainly be the death my child. How could I possibly face that outcome?

I had some insight into the power of this fear one day while spending time with my elderly mother who was living with episodic dementia. After taking her to lunch, we settled into the car, and she turned to me and very hesitantly asked, “Have I ever buried a child?” Her eyes told me that she dreaded hearing the answer. Fortunately, I was able to reassure her that all eleven of her children were alive and well. Indeed, she would be seeing all of them in a few days at a family outing. Even at the age of 90, a primary fear for my mother remained, Are my children okay? I think back to this often and it really gives me a perspective on what I had been feeling during our son’s addiction and what many other families may feel, as well.

During the height of our son’s substance use, it was as though we had lost him somewhere in a parallel universe. I remember thinking, “Here we are right beside him and we can’t reach him. How could we have lost our precious child to this? And how can we find him again?”

So often I was told by well-meaning people, including professionals, that I had to get out of his way. Let go. Detach. Watch him tumble into the abyss eventually to find his rock bottom. To me that felt like telling me, “Your family hasn’t suffered enough and neither has your loved one.” Stop enabling him, they would say. Stop being codependent. You’re as sick as he is. While there were some times when I believed this, and even did my best to operationalize these “recommendations,” most of the time it felt like I was abdicating my responsibilities as a parent and abandoning my child when he needed me most.

I would be the first to admit that there were times my choices were not in the best interest of our son’s recovery, but telling me that the only other option was to do nothing was unthinkable. Thank God, we intuitively knew to stay close and keep trying by supporting our son with love and understanding. By God’s Grace, and a lot of work on everyone’s part, we found our way to a sustained recovery. Our son has more than a decade in recovery and is now living the life I always dreamed he would.

In retrospect, the most important lesson I learned and would like to share with others in a similar situation was to never, never, never give up. Your child is still there and you will find him or her again. There are many roads to recovery. People who tell you otherwise are mistaken. One of the most important features to our family’s recovery was finding a connection with other families in similar situations. We were fortunate to find it locally, but when I learned that this peer support is also available through Parent Coaching, I found the science behind what I knew intuitively all along.

There are ways to stay connected to your loved one throughout this ordeal, and there are evidence-based practices that can be used to influence change while maintaining a positive relationship with your loved one. Practices like CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training), MI (Motivational Interviewing), and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) have taught me so much about what I already felt in my gut:

  • Communicating positively and collaboratively with your loved one is key.
  • Using positive reinforcement is necessary for positive change.
  • Allowing your loved one to learn from natural consequences is important.
  • Substance use serves a purpose and doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
  • Self-care is crucial.

Words cannot adequately describe what a comfort these science-based learnings provided me.

I now work to share this knowledge and that comfort it brings with other families experiencing the same grief as I did. It’s incredibly rewarding to help families trust their instincts and find the science that can be so elusive in our current treatment and recovery environment. The science that tells a family you can be involved with your child in a productive, non-confrontational way, and ultimately influence the outcome, is one of our biggest assets.

I have come to realize there is no “bottom” to this disease. Rather, there are points of intersection where the trajectory of a person’s life can be changed with loving, caring support and evidence-based interventions. And there are people you can talk to for help and support. No one has to suffer through the silent grief alone.

19 Responses

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    Deborah

    January 7, 2020 at 4:00 PM

    Good advice Amanda
    Your story has stopped me doing the hard love thing
    ( I was sceptical about it)
    It’s a disease they don’t won’t to be like this
    They made stupid mistakes
    & need clean decent people to help give wholesome support
    They already have depression
    So why shut them out.
    Never give monetary
    Help though
    Thanks Amanda
    It’s not youth fault
    Please don’t be so sad.
    Deborah

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    Nona

    October 18, 2019 at 11:48 AM

    Marie, you say “Thank God, we intuitively knew to stay close and keep trying by supporting our son with love and understanding. By God’s Grace, and a lot of work on everyone’s part, we found our way to a sustained recovery.” Good for you. We did the same. Am I less of a loving mom because God did not answer my prayers? I have lost THREE children, two in an accident when they were just 3 and 4 1/2 and then my youngest son from an overdose. He was in recovery. He relapsed for reasons I will never know and he was sold fentanyl. It took his chance of ever brushing himself off and trying again for recovery. I don’t like it when parents of those still alive say they are grieving for their child. NOT EVEN CLOSE. Those with children in the throes of a SUD should know their child is changed, they will never be the same person even if they have full recovery but you are not grieving them, you are simply loving them for who they are now. If they make it through they are the strongest people on this earth. Please do not say you grieved a child who is/was still alive, you should not get to use that term. You have NO idea what it is like to bury your child and actually grieve them for the rest of your life. Those of us who have are the only ones who are grieving our children.

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      Teresa

      December 10, 2019 at 8:42 AM

      I grieve my adult children that are alive. They are addicts. No, I haven’t buried them except in my mind a thousand times. They are not here. They will not be here for the holidays. They don’t call, they don’t visit. They are strangers & I grieve their loss every single day, with every event – holidays, birthdays, grandparent day, any day ~ they are not there. You are right in that no one except those that have had to actually bury their children could understand your grief but please don’t try to diminish others grief when they’ve buried theirs a thousand times.

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    Holly Schlentz

    February 16, 2019 at 1:09 AM

    Completely confused. My son died in 2006 at the age of almost 7 of an accidental overdose. Ever since then his older sister has been unstable. Every counseling available has been offered and more. At 18 the drugs started…and now at 22…I just don’t have any answers for her anymore. I know I need to also protect my 14 year old from her chaotic life and personality. There’s no easy choices here…

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      Josie Feliz

      February 19, 2019 at 11:00 AM

      Thanks for your message Holly. We have forwarded your message to one of our helpline specialists who can help better answer your question, and she will be reaching out to you shortly. Our Helpline is a good place to start if you’d like to talk to someone about what you’re going through. Feel free to connect with us in whichever manner you choose in the future: https://drugfree.org/helpline
      Thank you. -The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids

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    Amanda

    April 22, 2018 at 7:35 AM

    I am so, so sorry for your loss, Colleen. I can only imagine how you feel and my heart breaks for you. Just the thought of losing my child is devastating and fills me with horror. Its something I think about every day. Living in daily terror for years on end waiting for that news… Thats not an easy thing to live with, either. I mean no disrespect to you by using the words grief or grieve in relation to my daughter’s addiction. There is no comparison to what you are living through. Though those words are most often used when speaking of the death of someone that was loved, they dont only apply to loss through death. Grief is a normal emotional reaction to loss. The very definition of grief is “deep sorrow”. The definition of grieve is “to feel grief or great sorrow”. When my husband cheated, I knew that was the end of my marriage and my grief for that loss was so intense that I came very close to death myself. It took 6 years for me to begin moving forward in the healing process. Now… yes, my child is alive but Ive still lost her. I very seldom hear from her and when I do, she calls me by my name. She is changed and the girl that used to call me mom is permanently gone. She will never be who she used to be even if she stops using drugs because of some things that happened to her that altered her mind and her personality. So yes, I grieve. I cry. I sob. I dont eat much and I sure dont sleep much. In fact, I didnt sleep at all last night. Just cried…. I accomplish very little during the day. I go to work but some days, I never even go inside. I just sit in my car all day and finally go home 8, 10 even 12 hours later. I dont get much done at home either. I have dishes that have been in the sink for days. I just dont care too much. Ill end up throwing some of them away. I dont see my friends anymore or go anywhere. When I talk to my other kids its by text and I havent seen my grandchildren in a long, long time. I cant. I love them so much but I just want to be alone. Im just so sad. And the worst, the things that happened to my daughter…. They happened because I went the tough love route too. I wouldnt go get her and drive her to wherever she wanted to go. Even when she said she had no where to go and was on the side of the road. I thought she would hit “rock bottom” but instead she made survival choices that she never should have had to make. I left my beautiful girl to feel unloved, unwanted and abandoned. I left her to be abused and taken advantage of. And i cant fix any of it. My reality is that she IS going to die unless she stops using or comes home and I enable her. But you know what? I dont even have a home anymore. I lost everything I own in a natural disaster. Everything. Including my dog. Donations are the only reason I even have a car and clothes. And my daughter’s child…my grandchild… Also gone. Taken by the state, adopted, no contact. Hope isnt something I have.

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