Grief and Addiction: Causes, Relapse, How to Cope

two women crying and holding hands; grief and addiction, Castle Craig rehab

Grief affects us all at some point in life. It is a natural emotional response to a traumatic experience, but it is also a complex process. No two people experience grief the same way and there is no normal period of grieving. For some people, it may last months, or years. It can have a huge impact on your life. For those in addiction recovery, grief can be a trigger for relapse. Or, it can spur someone to console themselves with substance abuse for the first time.

Grief doesn’t only come from death. It can happen from the loss of anything important or a drastic change in life. This can be a breakup, divorce, loss of a job, or departure from one’s home town. Grief can even be felt when one breaks away from their addiction. A person in recovery may mourn the loss of alcohol or drugs, something they have learned to rely on.

How Grief Affects People

People experience and express their grief in different ways. Some people may feel sad, others angry. Some people may bury themselves in work or use the overwhelming emotions as fuel to move on. Certain people might appear normal, or their grief may be delayed. Others will lash out by engaging in risky behaviours. There are many ways to grieve and there is no right or wrong approach to it.

The only exception is if that grief results in self-harm, and substance abuse falls into that category. As an attempt to block emotions or erase memories, some people turn to alcohol or drugs as self-medication. Those who live in a culture where they’re taught to “suck it up”, instead of properly expressing emotion, may be even more likely to reach for substances as a coping mechanism. Unfortunately, this method can quickly lead to addiction.

While each person experiences bereavement in a unique way, most people go through some or all of the five stages of grief after a traumatic loss.

Stages of Grief

Grief is a process that presents itself in various stages. These stages do not come in any specific order and some people may skip certain stages altogether. How long a person lingers in each stage can also vary, and it is perfectly normal to go back and forth from one stage to another. The five stages of grief are:

Denial

After receiving bad news, a person may refuse to believe what has happened. Because the resulting emotions are strong, sudden, and shocking, the mind uses denial as a temporary defense mechanism.

Anger

As one comes to realise the reality of the situation, they may feel and/or express anger. It may be a themselves, others, God, or even the person that they lost.

Bargaining

Bargaining comes when the initial emotions settle down, so a person tries to reason with themselves or others about how things could have gone differently. They may wonder if there was anything they could’ve done to prevent it.

Depression

After a person finally realises that what has happened actually happened, that’s when the depression hits. Depression is more than sadness – it can make a person feel worthless and disenchanted with life.

Acceptance

The final stage is acceptance, where the person comes to accept that there is nothing they could’ve done then and nothing they can do now. This is when a person begins to move on with their life.

What is Complicated Grief?

If grief is not properly dealt with, it can turn into complicated grief. Also known as complicated bereavement, this is a condition that can affect anyone who hasn’t found a way to cope with their emotions. Complicated grief is when a person is stuck or escalating in their grief. If not addressed, it has the potential to increase negative emotions further. About 10% of people are affected by it, and many are also prone to addiction.

Although grief is not a mental disorder, complicated grief may potentially be classified as one in the future, as it presents itself with symptoms similar to major depression and PTSD. These include:

  • Continuous focus on what was lost
  • Wallowing in the past
  • Inability to focus on the present or future
  • Anhedonia
  • Either obsessing or avoiding any reminders of the loss
  • Neglecting self-care and responsibilities
  • Feeling that life is meaningless
  • Isolation
  • Paranoia
  • Derealisation or detachment from reality
  • Self-harm or suicidal thoughts and attempts

The Connection Between Grief and Addiction

Grief and addiction have a correlational relationship. It is well-known that grief can cause addiction, trigger relapse, and aggravate other psychological disorders, especially if it is long-lasting. If grief, or any emotion, is suppressed, it can lead one to feel overwhelmed. In time, they may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope. This makes bereavement and addiction a dangerous combination.

If someone is in recovery, they are already sensitive and vulnerable. Thus, a sudden emotional shock or prolonged period of grief can easily trigger relapse.

The use of substances may provide temporary relief but it will make things worse later. When the high wears off, the normal state will feel much worse than before. And in the long-term, repeated use can cause changes to the brain which will disrupt emotional regulation and natural coping mechanisms.

Drugs and alcohol may also be used as a form of self-harm. This is highly destructive behaviour and should be addressed immediately if noticed.

Coping with Grief

It is important to find healthy ways to cope with grief in order to prevent addiction or relapse. Remember, it is perfectly fine to express your emotions and take all the time you need to deal with what has happened. It helps to talk to others or join a support group.

Maintain a routine and your self-care. It is one of the simplest things you can do that will make a dramatic difference. This is how you tell yourself that life goes on and you need to keep going with it.

Don’t forget to continue doing the things you enjoy or even pick up a new hobby. Not only does this serve as a distraction but also a reminder of the good things in life.

Finally, when you’re ready, take some time to say goodbye to what you’ve lost. Things like writing a letter to your ex-spouse or organising a funeral for a relative help your mind step away from the situation.

If you feel that your grieving process is too overwhelming, to the point where you can’t function in normal life, take care of yourself, or deal with responsibilities, it is time to get professional help.

Getting Help for Grief and Addiction

Between bereavement and addiction, there is a lot that one has to deal with at the same time. Whether a person has relapsed or is currently dealing with an active addiction, the treatment must address both sides of the coin. If grief is left unresolved, a person will likely end up relapsing.

This is why it is important to seek the right rehab or treatment centre, ideally one that offers grief therapy. It is also helpful if they specialise in dual-diagnosis. The right addiction treatment centre should be able to identify symptoms of grief and address the problem alongside the addiction.

At Castle Craig Hospital, it was not uncommon for addiction patients to arrive with unresolved grief. It may be what contributed to their addiction. To assure a lasting recovery, grief and addiction should be treated simultaneously.

If grief is a problem, a patient needs to understand this. Thus, educating the person about their situation is important. However, before treatment can begin, it is necessary to have a clear head. Therefore, detoxification is a priority.

A structured programme to help with grief and addiction

Group grief therapy is very useful, as it allows patients to share their feelings and not feel alone in their sorrow. Individual and complementary therapies play a key role as well. Often, especially if grief has been ignored, a person may have developed PTSD or other mental disorder. In this case, that too, will need to be addressed separately.

Finally, aftercare is one of the most crucial parts, as the person will need to learn to cope with this and future grievances to prevent relapse. After all, a person may still be in grief long after they leave rehab. For example, in preparation for aftercare, one of the things a person will learn is to plan ahead for encountering triggers.

As with any mental disorder or trauma, proper care is very important. It is even more so if the person has to deal with more than one problem at one time. In addition to treating addiction, Castle Craig focuses on helping their patients come to terms with their grief and move on.