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The Ambiguous Loss of Loving an Addict and Letting Them Go

Once you let go of the need for closure, you free yourself.

Key points

  • Uncertainty can be hard for many people to handle.
  • Accepting the ambiguity of life frees up resources to help one better manage difficult circumstances.
  • Addiction is unpredictable and cannot be "fixed" except by the person who is suffering from the addiction.

No one intends to become addicted to alcohol or drugs before they get their first taste. Unfortunately, with some newly designed drugs, the addiction begins after the first use. When a person is lost to addiction, they may still be very much physically present in your life, but the person you knew before the addiction began seems lost to you forever.

Ambiguous loss is a term that has been used to describe the experience of losing someone in an incomplete, not-quite-final manner (Boss, 2010). This type of loss can be distressing in that a person is physically present, but psychologically missing from the family or relational roles or, alternatively, psychologically present but physically absent. The cognitive dissonance that results can be difficult to manage due to the feelings of ambiguity that surround the situation.

The feelings of grief and distress color the feelings you have for that person. Yet in the case of addiction, those feelings of sadness are often accompanied by anger and blame. When someone you care about is seemingly making the choice to maintain and feed their addiction, there can be a sense of helplessness in trying to fix the situation. You might spend hours feeling your way through “if onlys” or “maybes,” yet know in your heart that you are powerless over the addiction and your loved one’s situation.

"The elephant in the room"

Addictions are often called the “elephant in the room” that no one acknowledges. The hesitance to give the problem a name only adds to the confusion and ambiguity. However, by naming the problem, you empower yourself to take control of your responses and separate what you can change from what you cannot. Loving someone with an addiction is painful, but accepting that no one can change another is actually healing in that you stop blaming yourself for something you cannot control.

A lengthy process of disengagement increases ambiguity

While most losses are located in a specific time and space, the loss of a family member to addiction may be less pin-downable. This can increase the challenge of coping with ambiguous loss. When we lose someone to death or break up with a partner, or if our child moves away, we have a date we can point to and say, “This is when this sad thing happened.” With addiction, there may have been a lengthier process of disengagement from relationships, but finding a day to mark the loss can be helpful as it provides more of a sense of finality to the loss.

How to prioritize your own well-being

Humans, as a rule, dislike uncertainty. We are driven to find solutions to problems and find closure for circumstances that generate emotional distress. If you are trying to cope after someone you care about has been psychologically lost to addiction but is still physically present in your life, here are some steps you can take to prioritize your own well-being while grieving the loss you have suffered.

  1. Name the loss for what it is—addiction, alcoholism, substance abuse. Using euphemisms or avoiding the topic altogether further adds to the ambiguity of the situation and doesn’t place responsibility where it belongs.
  2. Allow yourself to suffer the loss and feel the pain. Pretending that “everything is just fine” when everything is falling apart drains emotional resources and leaves you less able to grieve effectively and move forward with authenticity.
  3. Acknowledge the power you do hold in terms of your own actions but be okay with accepting the lack of power to force someone else to change.
  4. Accept the situation for what it is without sugarcoating it. This gives you the freedom to step outside the problem and see it from a more objective perspective.
  5. Separate yourself from the person who is lost. Grief is about moving through it, not getting through it. If you allow yourself to become enmeshed with the other person, you keep yourself from moving through and end up stuck inside the problem.
  6. Don’t make excuses or take on blame for choices another person is making. When faced with a tragedy, many people jump into “superhero mode,” imagining they have superpowers that can right the wrongs of others. This is a totally normal fantasy, but not a reality. Don’t beat yourself up for being human.
  7. Acknowledge the person’s absence, allow yourself to grieve what you are missing, but accept that life must go on. If you choose to stay stuck in the “what might have been,” you are only adding to the suffering that the loss itself created.

Learning to live with ambiguity can take work. However, once you let go of the need for closure, you free yourself to be present in the moment with your full attention. Living in the moment doesn't deplete your resources the way that living in the past tends to do. By opening up to the pain that accompanies the loss, you are allowing yourself to feel. Experiencing and expressing emotions helps us heal. Most importantly, don’t keep your grief hidden from those who care about you. Being able to talk about the loss and the hurt you feel opens up the door to invaluable support.

In grief, reaching out pays dividends that turning inward cannot match.


Boss, P. (2010). The trauma and complicated grief of ambiguous loss. Pastoral Psychol, 59, 137–145 (2010).

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