Grief and addiction

Each individual responds to grief in their own way, as it invokes complex emotions in all of us; some of us may exhibit emotional behaviour, while others may hold their feelings in. Some people may struggle to manage their bereavement and thus turn to addictive substances like drugs or alcohol as a means of coping, whereas others may be able to function just as before. Therefore, there is no “one size fits all” response to grief; it pierces our core, and its effects can reverberate in numerous unforeseen ways. When someone develops addiction alongside feelings of grief, this is known as a co-occurring disorder, and to effectively overcome addiction, we need to address the effects of grief.


What is grief?

Grief is a natural yet overwhelming response to a loss of any kind. Grief can be a collective emotion many feel at once, such as in the aftermath of a tragedy, natural disaster, or war. Grief can also be a profoundly personal experience that follows the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the loss of a home or job, or the loss of good health.

What is addiction?

Addiction is a mental illness whereby a person feels powerless to stop using substances, whether drugs, alcohol, or food, or repeatedly engaging in behaviours to the point where it harms their health, work-life, and relationships.

Grief and addiction together: Signs someone is struggling with a co-occurring disorder

Addiction comes with various mental health problems, which can trigger an array of feelings in a person. Therefore, it can be hard to spot addiction in someone already entangled in the anguish of grief. However, there are some key signs to look out for. Read the following statements; if some seem familiar, it may indicate that a person is simultaneously dealing with addiction and grief.

  • Since their loss, they have begun to use substances or alcohol more often.
  • Since their loss, they have repeatedly been engaging in specific behaviours more often than before, such as gaming, gambling, and using the internet.
  • Since their loss, they have been overeating excessively or severely restricting their food intake.
  • Since their loss, their emotions have drastically altered- one minute, they feel “good”; the next, they can feel irritated and angry.
  • Since their loss, they have become withdrawn from people they once associated with. They only seem to spend time with those who engage in specific behaviours.
  • Since their loss, they seem irritable and hostile if they cannot access the source of their fix.

The connection between grief and addiction

According to the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, there are five stages that everyone goes through when experiencing loss. However, it should be noted that a person’s transit through each step is not always linear. Many people may hop back and forth between different stages, and some may remain on a particular stage for extended periods.

With this in mind, let’s look at each stage of grief and explore how they relate to addiction.

The five stages of grief…

This often happens immediately, whereby a person disbelieves that the loss has occurred. For example, they may convince themselves that there has been a misunderstanding or that the person who has gone will return. Denial is shocking and can cause a person to escape via drug and alcohol abuse or engage in addictive behaviours to distract themselves from reality.
Once a person accepts the loss, they may begin to feel angry. This anger can be directed at the person who has gone, or toward a higher power (for taking a person or thing away from them) or even at themselves. Such anger can be so intense that a person may feel unable to contain it and thus begin to abuse substances as a means of self-soothing.
This stage usually involves lots of ruminating over what could have been. A person may often think, “what if I did this?”, “What if I said that” or “If only I had done this instead”. Feelings of guilt and shame are common during this stage. Hence, a person may engage in reckless behaviour or abuse substances without considering the consequences as a subconscious means of punishing themselves.
At this stage, people may feel like they have hit an emotional wall and thus feel consumed with sadness and lethargy. They may struggle to get out of bed and function throughout their life. Depression is the primary cause of addiction, as people are looking for whatever they can to give them temporary feelings of dopamine – just to help them get through the day.
Acceptance is not necessarily a positive stage; it doesn’t mean a person has moved past their loss. But it does mean they have found a healthy way of living their life without the person or thing being there anymore. For example, they may exhibit appreciation for having known a person, or if they have lost a job, they may feel optimistic about finding a new opportunity. It’s important to note that a person’s acceptance mustn’t be masked by addiction. Usually, when a person is truly in a healthy place, they don’t require the use of substances or repetitive behaviours to make them feel good.

Addiction and complicated grief

While no response to grief is simple or easy, most people usually experience the five stages and, eventually, find peace in acceptance. Although they still (and may always) feel the pain of their loss, they can navigate through life with optimism for their future. However, complicated grief is a term used by psychologists to describe the process where a person is unable to move on or come to terms with their loss after twelve months or more. A person with complicated grief may feel as though life is not worth living in the absence of their loss, and in some cases, they may struggle with chronic depression and suicidal ideations.

Many factors contribute to complicated grief, such as:

  • How a person died. If it was sudden or traumatic then the shock of the death may be just as distressing as the loss itself. In addition, 33% of people who lost a loved one to sudden suicide increased their alcohol consumption to cope with their loss.
  • The death of a child. Parents who lose children are likely to feel the most debilitating forms of grief that can be extremely hard to process.
  • Previous losses. Complicated grief may arise when a person has lost more than one person (or something of importance) in a short time; for example, a person may have lost a family member, a relationship and a job all in the same year.

With complicated grief, people in mourning may feel guilty or wish they could have done something to prevent loss from happening (thus feeling forever stuck in the bargaining stage). Their anguish may be so overbearing that they turn to substances to cope with sorrowful thoughts. Additionally, a 2017 study reveals over a third of people with complicated grief developed alcohol or drug dependency shortly after their loss, primarily as a means of numbing intense emotional pain, helping them get better sleep, seeking a source of energy to get through the day or escaping from unprocessed emotions.


The best treatment for coping with grief and addiction

If you feel like you are struggling with grief and addiction, know that there is help and support available to you. It’s highly recommended you seek out bereavement therapy as soon as possible. Bereavement therapists treat grief by looking closely at the five stages. Grief therapists focus on helping clients process all their emotions associated with their loss, whilst encouraging clients to cherish the memory of the person they lost. Most importantly, therapists help those bereaved to accept their loss and find a healthy way to adapt to life after their loss, by teaching them helpful coping mechanisms to employ whenever times get particularly challenging.

How Primrose Lodge can help

At Primrose Lodge, we are committed to treating addiction, and in the process, we will help you to process your grief. We aim to make you feel as comfortable as possible throughout your stay with us by taking care of your day-to-day needs and providing a supervised detox if required. We will then invite you to attend numerous pioneering treatments that have proven to be effective in beating addiction:

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for addiction works by helping you become aware of your negative thought patterns that spur addictive behaviour. During CBT, your therapist will discuss what you’re thinking in terms of your grief and how it contributes to your cravings. Once you can pinpoint where triggers stem from, you are then equipped with the consciousness to change your behaviour.
Yoga and mediation
Whether you consider yourself a spiritual person or not, we recommend dropping all preconceived notions about yoga and meditation and allow yourself to notice the surprising effect mindfulness has on your clarity of thinking. Ultimately, such practices can steadily help us make healthier choices, resist temptations and organise our emotions better.
Family support therapy
We know grief affects us all in different ways and we know addiction has an unfortunate tendency of isolating people from their loved ones. We refuse to let this happen. Therefore, we invite your loved ones to participate in therapy together (family support therapy), so we can understand, forgive, and heal each other from addiction and address the collective feelings of grief.

We can help you today

No one can escape grief and if you have found yourself trapped in the depths of addiction alongside unprocessed grief, we want you to know there is help available. Primrose Lodge is determined to provide you with the treatment you need, so you can release your emotions in a safe and secure space, whilst at the same time freeing yourself from the grip of addiction.

Frequently asked questions

Will I receive treatment for grief in rehab?
No, you will not receive direct treatment for grief in rehab. However, effective rehab is all about identifying the underlying causes of addictions, understanding how they manifest and developing strategies to manage them. Grief can be one of those underlying causes and so the therapies that are used in addiction treatment can help you to better understand and process your grief. This, in turn, can help you to break free from the addiction as it no longer serves as a method of escaping your feelings.
Can I still grieve after becoming sober?
Yes, you will still grieve even after overcoming your addiction. Grief does not just disappear once you have become sober and it is important to give yourself the time and space to process your grief in a healthy way. There are many tools that can be developed in rehab to help you work through your emotions such as mindfulness and self-care strategies. You will also likely find it easier to deal with the symptoms of your grief without addiction exacerbating them.
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