Grief and Addiction

There comes a time in everyone’s life when they will experience some form of grief, perhaps through the death of a loved one or the breakdown of a marriage. With support and emotional backing, most people find healthy ways to cope with their pain and sadness. Unfortunately, for some, this isn’t the case. This page focuses on how addiction can become an issue during a person’s time of mourning and how to seek help if you find yourself in a similar situation.

What is grief?

Grief is that intense, complex mix of emotions that hits you when you lose someone or something really important to you. It is a natural yet highly personal experience that varies significantly among people. Factors such as personality, coping style, life experience and the nature of the loss influence the grieving process.

People may experience a range of feelings as part of the grieving process, including sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, despair, relief and even moments of happiness or peace. These emotions can fluctuate dramatically and are not linear, often described as a roller coaster of feelings that vary in intensity over time.

Grief can also impact your physical health, leading to symptoms such as changes in appetite, sleep disturbances, physical tiredness or other stress-related ailments. Cognitive effects may include trouble concentrating, preoccupation with the loss or a sense of disbelief.

What’s the best way to deal with grief?

Everyone’s grief looks a little different. Some people might find comfort in sticking to routines, hanging onto traditions or leaning on their friends and family for support. Others might need to be alone, finding their own ways to deal with the pain. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, and there’s definitely no stopwatch ticking down how long you’re ‘supposed’ to grieve.

Dealing with grief using ‘The 5 Stages of Grief’

The 5 stages of grief were first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book ‘On Death and Dying’. These five stages offer a framework for understanding the complex process of grieving. They help people recognise and validate their feelings, navigate the emotional journey of loss, and eventually find a way to cope with their grief.

Although these five stages are meant for those who’ve lost a loved one, they can also be relevant for other types of grief. The five stages are;

In the beginning, denial acts as a cushion against the shock of loss, dulling our emotions. We might find ourselves thinking that life has lost its meaning, feels too challenging or that we’re not ready to face the truth of our loss.
As we start to emerge from denial, the pain of reality comes back into focus. We’re often unprepared for it, and the strong feelings we experience can be diverted away from our vulnerable selves and expressed as anger. This anger might be directed at anything from objects and strangers to friends, family or even the loved one we’ve lost.
Feeling helpless and exposed often leads us to try and regain some control with “If only” thoughts, like “If only we had gotten help sooner” or “If only I had been there.” In an effort to delay the inevitable, we might find ourselves making silent plea’s with a higher power, hoping to bargain our way out of the pain of grief.
Following bargaining, we become fully present with our loss and it’s here that we might feel the deepest sadness. Grief becomes a more profound part of our existence than we could have imagined. This stage of deep sadness is a natural reaction to significant loss, not an indication of mental illness.
The final stage involves coming to terms with the fact that our loved one is gone and that this new state of affairs is here to stay. We might never be okay with this loss, but over time, we learn to accept it. We begin to adjust and live in a world that now feels different without our loved one. It’s about finding a way to move forward, even with the void they’ve left behind.
Note: It’s crucial to remember that these stages are not linear and may not happen in this order. Grief is very personal and individual, and each person goes through the process in their own way and time. Some may not go through every stage, and that is okay. The concept of the five stages has provided a helpful framework for understanding and talking about grief. Still, it only encompasses part of the full range of human responses to loss.

Grief and addiction

Grief leaves people in highly emotional states, and it’s not uncommon to hear about those who are grieving turning to drugs, alcohol or other addictive behaviours to deal with the sadness. Unfortunately, being in this type of emotionally charged state can significantly increase the susceptibility to forming addictions and dependencies. While the vast majority of those who grieve don’t form addictions, there are some who do. Below, we explore some of the potential ways a person dealing with grief may fall into the trap of addiction.

Emotional pain and coping mechanisms

In an attempt to shield themselves from this pain, some find solace in substances such as alcohol or drugs or in behaviours like excessive gambling or eating. This is because these activities can temporarily mask the pain, offering a fleeting escape from the harsh reality of their emotions.

For example, consider someone who has recently lost their spouse. The void left by their partner’s death can be profound, leading them to drink heavily as a means to deal with loneliness and grief. Initially, this might seem like a manageable way to cope, but as time goes on, it can spiral into a full-blown dependency or addiction.

A lack of support

Without the comfort of family, friends or professional guidance, those grieving can feel adrift in their sorrow and become vulnerable to finding solace in addictive substances or behaviours. This lack of support can increase feelings of isolation, making the lure of drugs or alcohol more appealing.

Imagine an individual who has experienced the loss of a close family member. The environment can become overwhelming if they are separated from other relatives or lack a supportive social circle. They might start misusing substances as they become a stand-in for emotional support.

Societal factors

Just in the same way as isolation from people could lead to the path of self-medication, so can some societal views. In environments where emotional expression during times of loss is stigmatised or substance use is normalised as a coping strategy, people may be more inclined to turn to drugs or alcohol to manage their grief. This cultural backdrop can create an environment for the development of addiction, as substance use becomes a socially acceptable way to deal with grief.

Pre-existing mental health conditions

Those dealing with pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) find themselves particularly vulnerable during periods of grief. The wave of emotions triggered by loss can worsen their existing conditions, pushing them toward substances as a makeshift form of self-medication.

How can grief and addiction be treated?

Overcoming addiction is a demanding process, yet having a comprehensive set of tools and methods is essential for successfully navigating this journey. Tackling grief in tandem with addiction during the recovery phase can significantly improve the chances of success.

Although Sanctuary Lodge doesn’t provide specialised grief rehabilitation, many of our addiction treatment modalities are beneficial in addressing grief as well.

Detox: If you have an addiction, we provide comprehensive detox services that will enable the drug to be ridden from your body. Our 24/7 support, backed by our team of healthcare professionals, will ensure that you get through this process comfortably.

Therapy: After detox (if needed), our individual and group therapy sessions are designed to uncover the underlying causes of addiction, offering a safe space for individuals to voice and work through their feelings, including those of grief. We employ Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), which provides essential skills in emotional regulation, vital for managing both addiction and grief.

We also incorporate holistic therapies such as yoga and meditation into our treatment protocols, aiming to boost overall health. These practices increase self-awareness, alleviate stress and build emotional strength, thereby supporting the process of dealing with grief in addition to addiction.

Aftercare: Aftercare plays a key role in providing ongoing support after treatment. It includes group therapy sessions that allow for the sharing of experiences and strengthening of coping mechanisms, assisting individuals in managing grief while upholding their recovery journey.

The combined effect of these therapeutic strategies addresses not just drug addiction but also lays a comprehensive groundwork for individuals to face and manage their grief effectively.

The next steps

If you’re facing the heavy burden of grief and addiction, know that you’re not alone. At Sanctuary Lodge, we understand the profound impact these challenges can have. Reach out to us for compassionate support and effective treatment. Our team is here to guide you towards healing, offering a caring environment where you can rebuild your life.

(Click here to see works cited)

  • Kübler-Ross, E. (1970). On death and dying. Collier Books/Macmillan Publishing Co.
  • “Substance Use and Co-Occurring Mental Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Accessed 27 Feb. 2024.
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