07/08/2010 06:19 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Advice for Loving an Addict and Healing Yourself

A few weeks ago, a good friend's mother passed away. Sylvia had lung cancer, and like a lot of cancers it moved through her body until it reached the super highway of her blood stream. It wasn't a long process, although she did live months longer than expected and relatively pain-free. She died peacefully surrounded by her children and husband and remarkably, her last words were "I love you." One could say she had a good life and a good death.

As I think about the grief my friend is going through, I can't help but consider my relationship with my own mother. It's nowhere near as close, loving or involved as my friend's was. His mom was a woman who wanted to be a mother; mine woke up out of a hazy 1960s-induced fog only to realize she had kids. I'm sure, for her, that realization was a trip in and of itself.

My mother struggled with addiction throughout my childhood. She spent years sober and has fallen back into the abyss of addiction again. It's terribly sad and very hard to watch, yet there's nothing unique about my story. It's the same one that every child of an addict has: we're in love with a person who is incapable of being in a healthy, adult relationship with us. Our wishes are juvenile, our needs unmet and our questions about why this has happened are unending. Most of us know that the reasons are not personal, but rarely does that make the pain any easier to bear.

Sylvia's passing makes it evident that for years I have been mourning my own loss -- a loss that is much quieter than a true death. I have been grieving the loss of someone who is still alive. The pieces of my story match up with many others. Anyone who is in love with a person they can't be with knows this pain. Anyone who loves someone with a brain disorder, Alzheimer's or untreatable mental illness also knows this pain. And of course, anyone who loves an addict knows this pain.

For us, there are two big questions: when and how do you say goodbye?

Unfortunately there is no simple answer. Until the moment comes when it's time to walk away for good (because of a true death or simply out of choice) the cycle of loving, grieving and loving remains. Those of us grieving living relationships are missing a clear ending. Instead of a traditional death where there is an actual moment marking the end, we're left with a string of painful hellos and goodbyes that can last a lifetime.

For those of us dealing with this nontraditional kind of loss, I offer these lessons to help:

Accept that you are in mourning. It's not traditional mourning but something that's a part of you has died. It may be your expectations of what "should have been" that have died. It may be something that you "once had" and cannot have again, that's died. It may be your dreams for the future that have died. Whatever you're mourning, accept that it is real and a part of your life. Accepting the truth will help move you into an active stage of grief so you can work on healing.

Recognize that this pattern is cyclical. Pain has a way of bubbling up and, like a volcano, needs to be released. If you can begin to monitor your patterns, you will see how frequently your emotions rise to the surface. It may be that your painful feelings are triggered by certain events, people or situations. To gain control over it, you have to understand it. Keeping a journal helps because it offers you the data to review later when you're not as emotional. Once you know the pattern, you can prepare yourself for future bouts and bring to your life the support you need.

Allow yourself to feel your pain. Pain that's repressed festers and leaks out in obscure ways. When you're in tune with your pain you can make time to let it out instead of having it show up in odd ways like yelling at drivers in traffic or crying when your boss gets a "tone" or worrying incessantly about your to-do list. When you really feel it, be angry, cry and worry about the true causes, not the false ones you make up to give yourself permission to feel what's really in there.

Stop judging yourself for loving this person, you just do. Maybe someday that will change, but today, you still love them. Period.

Bad things do happen to good people. It's cliche I know, but it is true. There's nothing about you that made this happen. It just did. You didn't create it, or cause it and you have no control over it. Accepting this seems to be one of the hardest parts because, while the person is still in your life, your questions about "why" can abound. There is no really good answer. Sure, there are logical reasons, but the immature question of "why" never really has a good answer. Sometimes, bad things just do happen to good people.

Truly, the hardest part of mourning someone who is still living is the hope that things will change for the better. That hope keeps this cycle alive. When someone physically dies, the grief eventually subsides because there is no place for hope. The facts are facts and death means that the person you love is not coming back; at least not in any traditional sort of way.

In cases like mine, one has to be mindful of how much energy they place in the "hope" that things will get better. Some might say that hope is a slippery slope. But that said, no one can tell you to give up hoping. One of the greatest human conditions is the optimistic belief that some people do change. I, for one, still believe that change is possible. Maybe not for everyone, but certainly for some. So while you're vacillating between hope and grief, try to practice the steps above. With time, they will help you find some peace.