When someone you love or care about is misusing substances, it’s not uncommon to feel terrified, sad, angry and flat out overwhelmed. As treatment providers we are trained to deal with these feelings and ideally have a support system around us so that we can do our work and be helpful in spite of how scary it is to help at times. We know, however, that the family members and people who care about our clients don’t have this training and often don’t have supports systems who understand what they are going through. And no matter how hard everyone around the person who is struggling with substance use tries to be helpful, no matter how much progress the person makes, no matter how many safety precautions are set up, there is always that fear that at some point they will go too far. While the majority of times everyone will pull through and be OK, there is no guarantee. Sometimes, even with our best efforts and theirs, tragedy strikes and people die from their substance use.
Typically, these blog posts are about the hope of helping someone make change. And, we hold a lot of hope! We hold that hope for a good reason: a significant majority of people who struggle with substance misuse get better. But some don’t and they often leave behind deep wounds and unanswered questions, and in their absence, loved ones are left with pain and sorrow.
We want to address this unfortunate reality about substances because we need to acknowledge that it is a possibility. We need to speak to the fact that the stakes of helping a loved one can be life or death. And, in our work, we have come across hundreds of families who have paid that price, and have shown us resilience and fortitude that is amazing and inspiring. This article is about sharing what they we have learned from them about tragedy.
Be Kind to Yourself
Part of the grieving process can be a natural desire to find blame. Who or what can I blame this on is a normal question when you’re feeling so shocked, hurt, angry and adrift in your emotions and thoughts. Sometimes, there is no good answer to these questions, and you may turn back on yourself, wondering what else you could have done and thinking that you failed to help and let your loved one down. Some even go so far to feel like they caused the death.
In those moments, it’s important to try and find some compassion for yourself and your family. One way you can develop empathy for yourself is to think about how you might treat someone else who was going through what you’re going through. Would you beat them up, and tell them all the things they did wrong? Would you chastise them for mistakes and shortcomings? Or would you offer support and love? Could you treat yourself with the same compassion and care that you would offer to another person? In doing so, you offer yourself some space to begin to heal.
Remember the Good
In the wake of suffering, when you’re overcome with grief, it can be easy to focus on how you got to where you’re at. That mischievous smile, winning attitude, and sense of humor are easy to forget when you are focused on all the terrible things that came along with the substance abuse. And while it’s important to remember and learn from the mistakes they (and maybe even you) made, it’s also important to remember the positive aspects of them that made them so loveable to you. When you remember the positives of a person, you keep that aspect of them alive. And we know that you probably fought hard to help your loved one find their way back to those unique and incredible parts of themselves, so they are worth remembering.
Talk About your Experience
It is painful to discuss your deepest and most personal losses. Sometimes it can even feel like talking about it re-opens wounds that you would prefer to keep covered up, and therefore feels like something that is meant to be avoided instead of sought out. And yet, we know that talking about your grief is one of the most effective ways to help find peace after a death. When we walk hand-in-hand with pain, we are free to walk in whatever direction we want, and to continue living. When we work to get rid of pain, we are forced to avoid all those spaces that it may lurk, which after a significant death, can be everywhere.
Your experience is also a powerful learning tool and potential source of support for other families who may be going through a similar experience (of which there are far too many). In our work with the Parent Support Network, we have had many parents who have had children die due to substances who have said that the most powerful healing tool they have had is their ability to help other families avoid the situation they are in. In your pain, there is also hope for change, in your family, in your community and in yourself.
We hope that no one will read this article or find it relevant or necessary. That’s because we hope that no one will have to go through the painful loss of a loved one due to their substance use. And, we recognize that is not a realistic hope. But maybe, by reading about it, some people might find a way to have some sense of peace, and regain their sense of hope.