How to Cope When You Lose Someone to Addiction

By The Fix staff 09/25/18

When someone close to you dies from addiction, you need to focus on your recovery.

Man sits at gravesite with head in hands.

Last year, 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses. Each of those individuals left a network of friends and loved ones who were heartbroken over their deaths. Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Americans are grieving the loss of someone because of addiction, our society still doesn’t talk about how to heal after losing someone to an overdose.

Robert Kreiss, residential lead counselor at MFI Recovery Center Mt. Rubidoux in Riverside, Cali., was in high school when his cousin Dawn — who was like a big sister to him — died from complications of addiction.

“At that point in my life, I didn’t understand what addiction truly was, I didn’t know that she was suffering from it, and I had no idea how to process it,” Kreiss said.

Grieving Dawn contributed to Kreiss’s own substance abuse.

“I was becoming an addict and didn’t even know it,” Kreiss said.

As he fell further into addiction, Kreiss continued to lose people he loved to the disease.

“I was chasing a drug that claimed the lives of countless people I knew,” he said of his heroin addiction.

It was only when Kreiss got into recovery and began processing his losses that he was able to maintain emotional health and sobriety. Now, he uses his experiences can help others who are mourning loved ones lost to addiction. Kreiss says these steps can help you cope when someone you love dies from addiction.

Recognize Addiction as a Disease

When Dawn died, Kreiss couldn’t understand why she had allowed herself to succumb to substance abuse. 

“I recall feeling numbness, anger, sadness and most of all misunderstanding. Looking back, I now realize that I lacked empathy for what she was struggling with,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that she had fell victim to her own use, and I had a lot of trouble accepting that addiction had taken her life.”

Although death is always difficult, Kreiss now says that understanding addiction as a disease can help family members process their family member’s death and separate the individual from the disease.

“People explained to me that Dawn died from ‘the disease’ of addiction, and I can’t say I believed that she had this ‘disease’ they spoke of at the time,” Kreiss recalled. It was only have his own battle with addiction that he realized how overwhelming the disease of addiction can be.

“I learned that addiction is a chronic and progressive illness centered in the brain and the way that we think, coupled with very real physical withdrawal symptoms and cravings,” he said. “And that without practicing ways to prevent relapse, there was little groundwork for success,”

Deal with Your Feelings as They Come

After Dawn’s death, Kreiss avoided dealing with the loss. However, the feelings were still piling up, even if he wasn’t addressing them.

“Recovery taught me that stuffing emotions was like shaking a soda bottle—eventually it will pop and make a mess of everything if the pressure isn’t released slowly,” Kreiss said.

Even thought there is stigma around addiction, talking about your loved one and sharing their story and your own can be a cathartic way to process their death.

“The biggest recommendations I can give for anyone who has lost someone to addiction, in recovery or not, is to share about it openly with others who have been through similar battles,” Kreiss said. Speaking at support groups, with friends, or in public can help you process the loss and can benefit other people as well.

“Just sharing their story can be strong enough to save another life,” Kreiss said.

Protect Your Own Recovery

Losing someone to addiction can be especially triggering for people who are in recovery themselves. If that applies to you, it’s important to protect your own recovery even as you grapple with the death of someone you loved.

“Loss can be a huge risk for someone in recovery to relapse,” Kreiss said.

During this difficult time, make sure that you are relying on the tools that helped you get sober. This might mean attending extra meetings, speaking with a sponsor or doing counseling sessions.

“To fully process a situation and begin moving forward without using, I must allow myself to feel my emotions and continue to use my support that helped get me clean in the first place,” Kreiss said.

Remember that there is no protocol for mourning a loss.

“There is no ‘cookie cutter way’ of grieving,” Kreiss said. “Feelings will come and go for different lengths of time.”

Applying principals of recovery and focusing on one day at a time can help you cope.

MFI provides affordable substance abuse and addiction treatment based on scientific methods and the 12-steps. They have a network of inpatient, outpatient, intensive outpatient and detox facilities throughout the state of California. Connect on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

The Fix staff consists of the editor-in-chief and publisher, a senior editor, an associate editor, an editorial coordinator, and several contributing editors and writers. Articles in Professional Voices, Ask an Expert, and similar sections are written by doctors, psychologists, clinicians, professors and other experts from universities, hospitals, government agencies and elsewhere. For contact and other info, please visit our About Us page.