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.

20 Responses

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    Stephanie G Heisler

    January 11, 2018 at 1:28 PM

    Wow, what a great article. You put into words the exact way I am feeling about my daughter, who is caught in drug use and eating disorder. I wonder ‘where is she? who is she?’ sometimes. And I know my grief has been a subconscious preparation for a possible premature death. I have thought more about being at her funeral than I have at being at her college graduation, or her wedding, or at the birth of her first child. I am trying to be more positive. And I am loving her —
    all of her — unconditionally. Thank you for the lovely gift of this article, and the reinforcement to never give up. XO

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    January 3, 2018 at 8:55 PM

    I agree with you and how we feel such loss even while they are still here. I grieve the moments we have lost due to years of alcohol abuse. I grieve for the baby my daughter will never have. I cry and grieve alone because I never thought anyone else felt this way. It’s like they slowly slipped away. I grieve for what her life
    Could have been. And even though I can think and act with gratitude that they are here , my emotions are that of grief. Ian also a recovering alcoholic LD 9/24/1982.

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    Colleen Oneil

    December 17, 2017 at 2:03 PM

    Having lost my daughter to this disease of addiction 4 months ago, and having been where this writer was but is no longer there, I can honestly say that grief is not the appropriate term to use while your child is still alive. I use to think that way too. I used to say ‘there are some fates worse than death’. Like we, Parents who had children in active addiction were in ways worse off than those parents who had actually lost their child to death. Well, having gone to the other side now I’m hear to tell you that there aren’t any fates worse than death. That it was not similar to grief, no way, no how. It’s almost an insult to the parents who have lost their child to death to compare yourselves to them. When your child is in active addiction, you have something that we do not have – HOPE. Having lost my daughter 4 months ago I would have given anything to ‘reset’ time. To go back before my daughter ended up on life support for 2 days. To go back before we had to make the decision to take her off life support. To go back and do the last 12 years while she was in addiction differently. To go back and do the last 38 years of her life differently. I kept thinking “Please God, just give me another chance” “please let this not be reality” “please made this all a very very bad dream” “please, give me my old life back”. There is nothing that can prepare you for this. There is nothing that can even give you a glimpse of how this was going to affect you, how this was going to feel, how this would change you. Nothing. Like night and day. I’d give anything to go back and have my daughter still in active addiction. At least then there would be hope. The permanence of the death of your child is like nothing you can imagine. I’ve experience loss before this – I’ve lost my mother, my brother, my stepmother, and many friends. This does not even compare. So for those of you reading this who are parents of children in active addiction thank your lucky stars….feel yourselves blessed….and do whatever you need to do to help your child. The writer of this article was accurate when they said to not ever give up on your child. Don’t listen to those people who say you need to let them hit rock bottom, that you need to shut them out, etc. They are WRONG. Learn from the mistakes parents like me made. Because God knows, you don’t want to trade places with ME.

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      December 18, 2017 at 4:46 PM

      Hi Colleen,
      I am so sorry you lost your daughter and can only imagine the struggle you both went through. You are absolutely right that there is always hope and no one knows what a new day will bring. I wish there were a way to bring your daughter back and hope you will continue to speak out to keep her memory alive.
      Wishing you peace,

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    December 16, 2017 at 9:42 PM

    Marie, I can relate to your article so much. My family is in the midst of this nightmare and we love our son so much. We have been called enablers, told to kick him to the curb, let him hit rock bottom, and the worst comment was that if he cared about us as a family he wouldn’t put us through this. After the lies and manipulation it has been hard to live with him. I am praying everyday that some day we can find our caring, loving son one day and he will have that spark he used to have. Thank you for your words. They have encouraged me to think there is still hope.

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    December 16, 2017 at 7:25 PM

    Dear Marie: I would very much like to speak to you regarding my son, currently in prison, for his alcohol/drug related crime,but about to be released soon. I am getting nervous, if we should even let him come home, not fully knowing how he’ll be after a year being locked up~ but of course he has no where else to go, and we cannot afford any type of live in programs for him. I am desperate for advice. My other son says just kick him to the curb, my mother’s heart says I just want him to be well! Please help~~~

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      December 18, 2017 at 9:46 AM

      Hi Ingrid ,I’m in exactly the same situation as you ,and I am on my own now as I’m divorced from my son’s father ,so this is my second attempt in having my son back to live with me after also 1 year of prison ,last time was after 3 months.
      I want to tell you I have exactly the same huge fears as you , because it was hell last time,but a voice inside me keeps telling me that if I keep thinking the worst ,I already have it doomed, because a 100%i know and have learn what we fear and put out COMES BACK.SO NOW I’m going to advise u like me to pray talk to God and truly ask and think good for your son,and everyone you hear that negative fear remember what that other lady said her lost her child ,we must never let our kids hit rock bottom ,and keep TRYING AS OUR CHILDREN ARE STILL ALIVE.I HOPE I HAVE HELPED YOU IN SOMEWAY .

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      December 18, 2017 at 4:43 PM

      Hi Ingrid,
      I can understand how conflicted you must feel wanting to help your son and yet getting advice that he shouldn’t come home or get any support from the family. Generally, without supports people fall back into patterns that are familiar – relapsing and continuing the vicious cycle of being in and out of jail with drug-related charges.

      That said, it will be up to you to think about the conditions under which your son can live in your home or in another place. Considerations are continuing with treatment, finding a job, creating and living within a budget, chores, compliance with probation, etc. Some families make a plan for a short period of time — weeks or a month — and then re-evaluate when the time is up. Including your son on developing a plan can help with is buy-in.

      If he has been using opioids, he could potentially be at high risk for an overdose because he has been abstinent from them for a period of time and his tolerance is low. That is not to say that he is going to relapse, but as a precautionary measure, knowing how to use Narcan and having it on hand can help. Further, he may benefit from medications that can help with cravings (buprenorphine or methadone) or block opiates (naltrexone) altogether.

      Support groups can be helpful to talk over ideas with other parents and to know that you’re not the only one going through this. Families Anonymous, Nar-anon and SMART Recovery for Family and Friends are a few.

      Lastly, please focus on your own self-care. This is always a journey and your resilience and well-being are more important than ever.
      Wishing you the best,

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