Working Through Grief Without Depending On Drugs Or Alcohol

Losing a loved one is one of the most painful things we go through as humans. Everyone will experience grief in their own way. 

It’s normal to experience a range of emotions while working through grief. Grief should be dealt with and not ignored, as it is a healthy response to loss. Ignoring grief may lead to severe consequences such as altered mental health, substance abuse problems, and increased risk of suicide.  

Causes Of Grief

Grief is a part of life. While it sometimes labeled as bereavement or mourning, grief is a normal reaction to: 

  • Death
  • Divorce
  • Job loss
  • Moving
  • Chronic illness
  • Traumatic events like natural disasters   

Grief Symptoms: What Does Grief Look Like?

Typically, individuals report feeling numb and empty or incapable of feeling joy or sadness after a death or loss. Anger and irritation are also common reactions. 

People experiencing grief may have nightmares, withdrawal socially, and no longer desire to participate in their daily activities. 

Individuals dealing with grief are likely to experience some to all of the following symptoms: 

  • Anxiety 
  • Shock 
  • Disbelief 
  • Periods of sadness 
  • Irritation 
  • Agitation 
  • Sadness 
  • Numbness 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Anger 
  • Disorientation 
  • Crying spells

The above symptoms may influence grief’s physical side effects, such as trouble sleeping, exhaustion, and disrupting eating patterns.

The Grieving Process

Everyone feels grief differently. Based on the Kubler-Ross grief cycle model, there are five stages of grief:

  • Denial
  • Anger 
  • Bargaining 
  • Depression 
  • Acceptance

It is vital to note that individuals in mourning may not go through these stages chronologically, and they may experience them more than once or not at all, depending on the person. 

Grieving is a fluid process. Some days will be better than others, while other days may be worse. Individuals may experience more than one stage at once or see-saw between steps, and only they will be able to tell when they feel back to their usual selves. 

Different Types Of Grief

Different types of grief can fall into several different categories, depending on the cause and time elapsed since the onset of these emotions. 

Acute grief is the intense emotional reaction that happens directly after the loss or other event that spurs the grieving. 

Chronic grief is considered to be the continued emotional state that occurs after acute grief (usually two to three months in most cases). 

Chronic grief can be challenging to deal with, and if it is left untreated may result in substance abuse. 

Complicated or Traumatic Grief

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Following disaster or a traumatic event, many factors can interpret the grieving process, increasing the risk for complicated or traumatic grief. 

Whether the disaster is natural or human-caused, the death of loved ones in addition to the loss of possessions can cause an increased risk for complicated or traumatic grief. 

In some cases, there will be a need to prioritize physical needs over processing loss of life, delaying, prolonging, and complicating the grieving process. 

Individuals with complicated or traumatic grief may experience the following symptoms: 

  • Feeling deeply angry about the death or loss
  • Being unable to think of anything other than the lost loved one 
  • Not wanting any reminders of the loved one anywhere 
  • Having nightmares and intrusive thoughts 
  • Feeling profoundly lonely and longing for the person they have lost 
  • Feeling disconnected and distrustful of others 
  • Feeling unable to maintain regular activities or responsibilities 
  • Feeling bitter about like and envying others not affected by grief 
  • Being unable to enjoy life or remember happy times with their loved one 

How Long Does Grief Last?

The acute phase of grief that happens directly following the loss typically lasts two months or so, with other symptoms like those listed above lasting for a year or longer. 

Overall, it can take a year or more to overcome intense grief and accept the loss. 

How Grief Can Lead To Addiction

A possible complication of grief is excess drug and alcohol use, which can lead to addiction and depression. This is especially true when: 

  • Someone takes drugs and alcohol to numb feelings of grief.
  • Grief is never dealt with or processed properly. 
  • Someone attempts to replace a relationship they had with substance use.
  • Individuals lack the ability or skills to cope with their grief. 

Several studies have noted the relationship between complicated feelings of grief and excess alcohol consumption. 

Individuals struggling with grief are particularly vulnerable to developing an addiction as they navigate their severe mourning symptoms. 

Avoid Numbing Grief With Drugs And Alcohol

Grief can be powerful and overwhelming emotionally and physically. To protect themselves, individuals may consciously or subconsciously push grief away. 

Sadly, this doesn’t make it disappear. Emotions are complex and should be dealt with as they arise, not shoved down deep where they cannot be healed. 

Untouched emotions and grief can cause individuals to turn to drugs and alcohol to forget and numb. Using substances in this manner can then become a crutch that develops into active addiction. 

Replacing Relationships With Substance Use

When someone close to us passes away, we lose that vital relationship and look for ways to replace it. 

The urge to replace the relationship can help dodge painful emotions experienced when individuals try to live without their loved ones. 

No one ever plans to replace their loved one with alcohol or drugs. It happens as a result of avoiding dealing with challenging emotions involved during bereavement. 

When the means to escape these challenging feelings is readily available, it can be difficult to turn away from it. Finding solace in substance abuse can be the start of an intense addiction cycle. 

Strategies For Dealing With Grief During The COVID-19 Pandemic

No matter the cause for grief, some actions can be taken to help cope with this challenging state, including: 

  • Connect with others (during COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders): 
    • Invite others to call you or host conference calls with family and friends to stay connected. 
    • Ask family and friends to share stories and pictures with you via email, mail, or through social media that allows groups to communicate with each other. 
    • Coordinate a date and time for friends and family to honor your loved one by reciting a poem, spiritual reading, or prayer within their own households. 

  • Create memories or rituals: 
    • Develop a virtual memory book, blog, or website to remember your loved one. Ask family and friends to contribute their memories, stories, and images. 
    • Take part in a remembrance activity, such as planting a tree or preparing a favorite meal that is significant to you and your loved one who died. 

  • Ask for help from others: 
    • Seek out a grief counselor or other mental health assistance through support groups or hotlines. These services are commonly offered in a virtual setting or over the phone.
    • Seek spiritual guidance and support from faith-based organizations, including your religious leaders and congregations, if applicable. 
    • Seek out support from other trusted friends or members of the community. 

Developing Alternative Coping Skills

COVID-19 may bring about grief for reasons other than the death of a loved one. Individuals may feel grief due to: 

  • Job loss or layoff 
  • Inability to connect with friends and family in-person 
  • Being unable to attend normal religious organization meetings 
  • Missing special social events (graduations, weddings, vacations, family reunions) 
  • Experiencing drastic changes in everyday life routines 

Individuals who grieve these things may also feel guilty that they feel this way because the loss of life is more of a reason to feel grief. 

Grief, however, is a universal emotion. There is no right or wrong way to experience it, and all losses are significant. 

Here are some ways to cope with feelings of grief other than reaching for drugs or alcohol: 

Acknowledge Your Losses and Feelings of Grief

Find ways to express your grief. Individuals can participate in whatever activity brings them the most comfort, including: 

  • Art 
  • Gardening 
  • Writing 
  • Talking with friends and family
  • Cooking 
  • Listening or writing music 
  • Or other creative practices 

Consider developing new daily habits that allow you to stay connected with loved ones. People living in the same household may consider playing board games and or exercising together outdoors. Individuals living alone may consider interacting with loved ones over the phone or via video-call software like Zoom or Skype.

If you are concerned about future losses, try to practice mindfulness to help you stay in the present moment. 

Supporting A Loved One Experiencing Grief

If you are concerned about a loved one who is struggling to cope with their own grief, here are some things you can do to help: 

  • Initiate contact: Get in touch with them and be available to spend some time with them. Respect that they may need to cry, hug, talk, be silent, or be left alone. 
  • Listen: Often, we worry about what we will say to grieving loved ones. It can often be challenging to know what to say, especially if you haven’t experienced grief yourself. The truth is there may be no “right” words, but listening can provide excellent support. The best thing to do is avoid cliches and giving advice and just let them do what feels right. 
  • Do something together: Spend some time doing ordinary things together, such as watching a movie, going for a walk, or having a meal together. If you are unable to be together physically, you can do these things together virtually. 
  • Practice help: Cooking and preparing meals or looking after children of people dealing with grief can be a great gift.
  • Be aware: Grief can last a long time (up to a year or more). Birthdays and anniversaries may be extra difficult for a bereaved person, so making an effort to contact them on that day to let them know you haven’t forgotten can be very meaningful.  

Helping Children And Teens With Grief

Grief can appear differently in children and teens versus adults. In particular, children have a hard time understanding and coping with the loss of a loved one. 

Sometimes children appear sad and talk about missing the person or act out. 

Other times, they may play, interact with friends, and participate in usually social activities like normal. 

As a result of COVID-19, children may grieve the loss of their usual routine, such as going to school or playing with friends. 

Parents and caregivers play an essential role in helping their children deal with their grief. 

Ways to support a grieving child include: 

  • Ask questions to determine the child’s emotional state and understand their point of view of the event. 
  • Permit children to grieve by allowing them to talk to express their thoughts and feelings in creative ways. 
  • Provide age and developmentally appropriate answers to questions. For more information on this, reach out to a professional counselor who specializes in children. 
  • Practice calming techniques and coping strategies with your child. 
  • Take care of yourself and model healthy coping strategies for your children. 
  • Maintain routines as much as possible. 
  • Spend time with your child, reading, coloring, or doing other activities they enjoy. 

Signs children may need help processing their emotions, including changes in behavior such as: 

  • Acting out 
  • Becoming disinterested in normal activities
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits,
  • Persistent anxiety, sadness, or depression

Ask your child’s healthcare provider if troubling reactions seem to go on for too long, interfere with school or relationships, or if you are unsure how your child is feeling. 

When And Where To Find Help

When individuals reach the point where they experience more bad days than good or simply feel that they cannot control their grieving emotions, they should reach out for help. 

Help can come from many different sources. Individuals may choose to enlist friends and family during their time of need. They can also find support from external sources such as: 

  • Clergy 
  • Mental health specialists 
  • Social workers 
  • Support groups 

These supports are crucial during the acute phase of grief (usually two months after experiencing the loss). Individuals struggling with depression due to being unable to confront their grief should strongly consider seeing a mental health specialist. 

Support groups where members share common experiences may help relieve excess stress from grieving, particularly if you have lost a child or a loved one. 

This page does not provide medical advice

Written by Elevate Addiction Services | ©2020 Elevate Addiction Services | All Rights Reserved

Medically reviewed by

Tim Sinnott, LMFT LAADC

December 22, 2020

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