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How Do I Help My Grieving, Substance Abusing Daughter?


My daughter’s husband just suddenly passed away and my daughter is in a severe depression. She was just put in the hospital for drug/alcohol abuse and her children have have given legal guardianship to another member of the family. I have been very supportive of her up until now and now I am very angry with her. I haven’t spoken to her yet and I need to know if she needs "tough love" or more support from me?

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It’s probably not either one or the other that your daughter needs from you and from others, but both. In the disorientation and pain of her grief, your daughter has gone down a coping "dead end". She is out of control, and has abandoned the social roles that have helped to give structure and meaning to her life. Her path of substance abuse is a way that she has found to remove the acute and intense pain she feels, but as is obvious to all (and perhaps even to her), it is a self-destructive, self-indulgent path that will harm far more than it will help. It will be a good thing if you and the other people around your daughter help push her back into her social role of mother. If she can once again find meaning and structure in that role, she will have motivation to clean up her act.

In order to push her in this direction, it may be useful to use both the carrot and the stick. You need to be a source of comfort for her as she is really in pain and needs comforting and because if all you do is yell at her, your attacks will lose credibility. However, your daughter also needs to know that she has been behaving recklessly and selfishly, harming her children and herself in the process. If she doesn’t care about herself right now, at least she should care about her children. She needs to know that you are angry and disappointed at her behavior, but also that if she straightens up that you will be proud of her. You can’t do this with a purely angry approach or a purely loving approach. You need to be able to express both emotions.

I’m assuming that your daughter’s drug and alcohol problem is rather serious if it has gotten to the point where her children have needed to be taken from her. If it hasn’t happened already, it is probably appropriate that she receive substance abuse treatment and follow up on that treatment with regular visits to a therapist, and to substance abuse support groups of a variety she finds useful. When she is sober, it will be a good idea for her to talk about her loss with a therapist. Grief is not a mental disorder by any means, but for many people the pain of grief can be partially lessened by taking with a therapist so as to place the loss in context. Perspective, and the promise that life will make sense again in the future can make all the difference.

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