3 Things You Must Remember If You've Lost A Child To Addiction

You child wasn't a bad person —​ and neither are you.

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Mike, a middle aged man, sought treatment after his twenty-four-year-old son overdosed on heroin.

He was depressed, angry, and struggling with the grieving process. He said he could not get over his son’s death.

He reported that for two years, his son was addicted to many drugs, the last six months of his life  heroin.

Eddy, his son, struggled with depression and anxiety during high school and college. With medication and involvement in sports and the fraternity he was in  he seemed to be doing fine. Then when he graduated, he seemed to fall apart.


Mike felt guilty because he had to be out of town one week a month for his job and worried maybe he was not there enough for him. His wife was a stay at home mom who took great care of the kids. When he was home he was a family man, involved in all aspects of the kids’ lives.

He felt angry at the funeral when his son’s lacrosse coach, principal from high school, family, and friends shared great memories about his son.

They talked about how Eddy was an athlete and team player, loyal friend, and had a great sense of humor. While they were talking, he was angry and numb; all he would remember was the last two years of his life  Eddy losing one job after another, legal trouble, disturbing the family during holidays because he was high or drunk.


He remembered arguing with him about his drug use, the hope he felt after Eddy participated in two treatment programs, that he was going to have his son back, clean and healthy. Only to be disappointed again when he found out he was using again.

He didn’t understand why Eddy  who grew up in a family that loved him, had friends, and was smart, got addicted to drugs. 

After much discussion, he shared that his mother was an alcoholic and both her parents struggled with depression. So Eddy was biologically at risk for depression and addiction.

I explained that addiction is a chronic brain disease that leads to compulsive drug seeking and use. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the structure and how the brain works. Brain imagery studies of individuals with addiction show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical to behavior control, judgment, learning, decision making, and memory.


These changes in the brain change the way the brain works, which may explain the addict’s compulsive drug seeking and use despite harmful consequences to themselves and loved ones.

We discussed the possibility that Eddy was more depressed than they knew and heroin, and an injected drug that enters the brain within seconds, producing a powerful rush of pleasure, made Eddy feel better.

So those first few heroin injections may have been a choice  but drugs change the brain to foster compulsive drug use.

As he began to understand more about the addiction process and how it affects the brain he felt less angry and more empathy for his son.

He wanted to begin to remember the first twenty-two years of life with his son. I asked him to bring in home movies and pictures of his son before he became addicted to drugs. As we watched these movies and pictures, they triggered many fond memories of his son and family together.


He was finally able to grieve, cry, laugh, and accept the loss of his son.

We talked about how Eddy was much more than his addiction. There was a rich history of meaningful moments, times he had his whole family laughing, memories of watching him play lacrosse and soccer, remembering his sensitivity and compassion to other people’s feelings and struggles.

He realized we are all more than our addictions, mistakes, or problems.

We are human and no one is perfect.

By the end of treatment, he was able to forgive himself and Eddy. He was able to hold Eddy and their memories in his heart forever.

Mike is far from alone. We all know someone affected by addiction, and the drug epidemic in this country is skyrocketing. This is not a subject we can avoid any further, and it is no longer rare to lose a beloved, wonderful child to the brain disease of addiction.


If you can relate to Mike, please keep these three things in mind: 

1. Don't waste your energy by going over the past and endlessly second-guessing yourself as a parent.

Addiction is a complicated disease — not a moral failing.

2. Challenge the stigma and shame often associated with substance abuse.

Share the news, and be aware that this can happen to anyone! According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the total number of deaths from heroin overdoses increased by six times from 2001 to 2014. 

3. Take care of yourself.


Try to eat healthily, exercise, connect with others when you are ready, and spend time in nature, prayer, meditation.

If there are other kids in the family, they will need you more than ever.

Remember that your child was much more than their addiction.

You can hate the addiction, but hold onto all the memories and experiences you had together. Honor all their signature strengths (like their humor or compassion) that made them special to you.

Ann Kearney-Cooke is a psychologist in Cincinnati, Ohio, and mother of four adult children. She is a distinguished scholar at Columbia University and a New York Times bestselling author. Catch up with her on LinkedIn.