Identifying Ambiguous Grief When Your Child Is Struggling With Substances

As parents of children struggling with substances, we’re used to identifying feelings of fear, anger, sadness, and guilt, but we don’t always identify the grief we feel.

Probably because grief is usually associated with death, but there are many types of loss that cause grief.

Ambiguous loss is when the person you’re grieving is physically present but emotionally unavailable for a relationship or you’re estranged from them.

When a person is struggling with substances they often aren’t as emotionally available as they were before and that can lead to drastic changes in your relationship with them.

If their substance use goes on for years or escalates there are more layers of loss as you continue to watch their life change in ways you couldn’t have ever imagined.

It seemed like overnight I went from being really close with my daughter, spending most of my time supporting her competitive cheer activities, reading books out loud to each other, and cuddling while we watched TV, to watching her spiral into a deep depression, anxiety, and a total loss of interest in anything other than spending time with people who she used substances with.

I didn’t realize it until later, but when that happened I lost my dream about what I expected to experience as a mom, my dreams for my daughter’s life, my identity as a “good mom”, my sense of safety and security, and worst of all I lost my close relationship with my daughter.

It was incredibly painful and every part of me resisted the reality of what was happening.

In an effort to relieve my pain, I desperately tried to force the relationship we used to have and the life I dreamed of for both of us.

I got caught in a vicious cycle of turning to her to relieve my pain, her pulling away, and me clinging to her even more.

One of the crucial parts of my personal healing and recovery was grieving the loss of the relationship we used to have and all my dreams for both of our futures.

Grieving helped me let go of what I thought our lives should have been like so I could accept reality and meet my daughter where she was at, instead of trying to change her.

Acknowledging our disappointment, unfulfilled expectations, and the profound sense of loss we experience is healthy.

It’s also good for your relationship with your child. 

It relieves the pressure we put on them to be someone they can’t be right now.

If you think grieving ambiguous loss can help your healing and recovery journey here are a few things you can try:

  • Acknowledge your loss: Recognize and accept that you have experienced a significant loss. Allow yourself to fully acknowledge the reality of the situation and the impact it has on your life. Give yourself permission to feel whatever comes up without judgment.

  • Experience and express emotions: Allow yourself to experience a range of emotions, such as sadness, anger, guilt, confusion, or whatever comes up. It’s important to give yourself permission to feel these emotions without judgment or suppressing them. You hurt because you care and that’s good to know.

  • Seek support: Reach out to friends, family members, therapists, coaches, or support groups who understand your situation. Sharing your feelings and experiences with others who have gone through similar circumstances can provide relief.

  • Allow time for healing: Understand that grief takes time and that healing occurs at its own pace. Be patient and gentle with yourself as you allow yourself to process the loss at your own speed. Don’t put expectations or timelines on your grieving process because everyone’s journey is unique.
  • Take care of yourself: Self-care is essential to your physical and emotional health.  Start with your most basic needs like sleep, water, moving your body, deep breathing, and nutritious food.
  • Adjust to a new reality: Embrace your resilience and ability to adapt. Over time, you will begin to adjust to your unexpected current reality. This might involve making changes in your role as a parent, changing your relationship with your child, and educating yourself about substance use.

Just like recovery, grief isn’t a linear process.

You might move back and forth between different steps. 

Be patient, kind, and compassionate with yourself as you navigate your grief.