Grievers and the Chemically Dependent Have Similar Journeys

Chemically dependent individuals, like everyone else, experience loss.  Working with grief in chemically dependent clients is challenging, due to the fact that they use drugs, in part, to avoid pain. They may also experience delayed grief soon after becoming drug-free. Delayed grief means that the person experiences the intense pain of loss they suppressed due to their use of drugs.

I have become more attentive to grief in chemically dependent individuals since the death of my daughter Jeannine over seven years ago.  I have discovered many similarities in the journeys between chemically dependent individuals who are working to attain sobriety and non- chemically dependent bereaved individuals who are trying to adjust to life without their loved ones:

  • Use of support groups: Chemically dependent individuals rely on support from self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous to help them live a drug-free lifestyle. Regular attendance at these self-help meetings helps them feel less alone and isolated during their recovery journey. Individuals who have experienced loss will go to a support group best suited to meet their needs. For both grieving and chemically dependent individuals, inadequate support networks can be detrimental to their progress. For chemically dependent individuals who have specific grief issues, attendance at a support group specific to their loss, is also indicated.
  •  Stories are key: The significance of the journeys of both chemically dependent and bereaved individuals is enhanced by the stories that they tell about their addiction and their deceased loved ones.  
  • Emphasis on Self–Care: Bereaved individuals are encouraged to develop their own personal self-care plans, which can include ways that they can nurture themselves physically, psychologically, spiritually and emotionally after loss. Chemically dependent people are also encouraged to develop self-care plans. They are taught to identify their triggers and to find ways to manage those triggers. Self-care plans should be modified as the individual’s needs change.
  •  The journeys of both the chemically dependent person and bereaved individual are circular rather than linear. A chemically dependent individual may re-experience urges to use at any time in their recovery due to contact with old places, people and things that contributed to their use, or due to stress. For the bereaved, the continuous occurrence of milestone events  (e.g., birthdays, death anniversary dates) can result to a return to the intense emotional pain of early grief.

When working with bereaved and chemically dependent people, professionals can be most helpful in helping them find meaning and significance through listening to their stories, celebrating progress and connecting them with appropriate support networks. In this context, the professional becomes a companion and an important part of the journey.

We also need to remember that not everyone grieves or attains sobriety the same way. It is our job to understand their individual needs and strengths, and work from that perspective. 

Dave Roberts 2011

David Roberts

More Articles Written by David

David J. Roberts, LMSW, became a parent who experienced the death of a child, when his daughter Jeannine died of cancer on 3/1/03 at the age of 18. He is a retired addiction professional and an adjunct professor in the psychology department at Utica College in Utica, New York. Dave is a featured speaker, workshop facilitator and coach for Aspire Place, LLC (www.aspireplace.com) He is also the chapter leader for The Compassionate Friends of the Mohawk Valley. Mr. Roberts has been a presenter at the Southern Humanities Council Conference in both 2017 and 2018. Dave has been a past workshop facilitator for The Compassionate Friends. He has also been a past workshop facilitator and keynote speaker for The Bereaved Parents of the USA. Mr. Roberts has contributed articles to the Huffington Post blog, The Grief Toolbox, Recovering the Self Journal and Medium. One of Dave's articles, My Daughter is Never Far Away, can also be found in Open to Hope: Inspirational Stories of Healing and Loss. Excerpts from Dave's article for The Open to Hope Foundation, called The Broken Places were featured in the 2012 Paraclete Press DVD video, Grieving the Sudden Death of a Loved One. He has appeared on numerous radio and internet broadcasts and Open to Hope Television. Dave was also part of a panel in 2016 for the BBC Podcast, World Have Your Say, with other grief experts, discussing the death of Carrie Fisher. Dave’s website: www.bootsyandangel.com is devoted to providing support and resources for individuals experiencing loss.

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  • DJ says:

    Thank you for helping me today through your words in this and the Does Time Heal article. My only child (25 yr old son) died March 30, 2010 from an accidental prescription drug overdose after yrs of various drug and alcohol addictions. By the way, my son loved Jack Johnson music!

  • David Roberts says:

    Hi DJ. I am glad that my two articles were able to provide you with some comfort. Please accept my condolences for the death of your son. I have also worked in the addictions field for 24 years and am all too familiar with the devastating effects of alcohol and other drug use on families.
    I have recently become a fan of Jack Johnson and just loved his quote on love and time.
    Take care DJ