Grief And Addiction

Grief is a universal human experience; unfortunately, it is something that connects us all. Grief is a natural process – but it can manifest in different ways. However, this does not mean that grief cannot sometimes become more complex and lead to the development of further concerns, such as mental health conditions or addiction. In these instances, sustained help may be required to support an individual through the grieving process whilst also managing any additional emotional and behavioural effects of a developed (or exacerbated) addiction.

What is grief?

Grief is defined as ‘the primarily emotional/affective process of reacting to the loss of a loved one through death.’ Grief is something that, unfortunately, we all experience. However, grief is not the same for everyone. In some instances, grieving can become more complex or indicate a genuine cause for concern. Grief reactions can be separated into several categories, such as:

  • Abnormal
  • Traumatic
  • Pathological
  • Complicated

These types of grief can become overbearing and debilitating, leading to a general decline in wellbeing and a need for sustained psychological support. In these instances, a diagnosis of prolonged, persistent or complex grief disorder may be fitting. When this occurs, there is potentially a need for a ‘interprofessional team’ to assist the individual in regaining a sense of wellbeing and control.

Causes of grief

Grief is typically associated with the after-effects of a death. However, there are other situations where we may also experience grief-like symptoms.

  • A divorce or separation
  • The loss of a pet
  • A serious diagnosis
  • A relapse of a diagnosis previously in remission
  • Retirement or career loss
  • Miscarriage
  • Abortion

There are also factors that may make a death harder to deal with. These include:

  • Death of a very close loved one
  • A traumatic death (involving injury, accident or violence)
  • An unexpected death
  • Death after a long illness (such as cancer)
  • Death by suicide

In these instances, death can be harder to grapple with and make it more likely for the grieving process to last longer and also to appear more complex.

Grief: The statistics

In 2020, 614,000 people died in England and Wales. This led to an estimated 3 million people dealing with grief. This equates to around 75,000 more deaths than the average for the preceding 5 years. This indicates that in the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of people dealing with grief. This high volume suggests an upsurge in individuals dealing with complex grief following the early years of the coronavirus pandemic, indicating a potentially large unmet treatment need of people struggling with both grief and addiction.

What does grief look like?

It is difficult to give a clear-cut list of the symptoms of grief. This is because grieving is such a personal and individual process. Each person may find that their grief manifests differently. This can often mean that grief hits us in unexpected ways. But some more ‘classic’ signs of grief are commonly experienced following some bereavement. These are:

  • Sadness or depression
  • Feeling isolated
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Feeling nostalgic
  • Feeling numb
  • Experiencing shock
  • Feeling confused
  • Feeling lost or ‘changed’
  • Feeling anxious
  • Feeling out of control
  • Feeling nervous that you may lose other people
  • Thinking lots (and becoming paranoid about) death
  • Feeling angry or frustrated
  • Feeling relieved
  • Feeling guilty
  • Struggling to sleep
  • Under or overeating
  • Experiencing pain, aches or other physical health pro
  • Isolation and social withdrawal
  • Finding it difficult to be alone
  • Difficulty concentrating

The stages of grief

It is generally accepted that grief happens in 5 phases:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

What is important to remember is that these phases are only sometimes linear. Just like with recovery from addiction, grief is not a simple process. It can move backwards and forwards over time, sometimes without an apparent rhyme or reason. This is because the emotions associated with grief are very sensitive and intertwined, and it isn’t easy to pinpoint such complex phenomena in a linear chronology. Some of the stages are very short, whilst others are very long and intensive. This personal aspect of grief can sometimes make it hard for us to establish if we are ‘getting better’ or not. At this point, it can be useful to have a loved one or a friend to confide in in order to monitor your wellbeing over time.

Am I dealing with grief?

If you answer yes to the following questions, then it is likely that you are dealing with complex grief:

  • I have intrusive thoughts or images of the person who has died
  • I experience significant emotional pain
  • I feel myself longing for the person who has died
  • I feel confused about who I am following my loss
  • I find it hard to accept my loss
  • I avoid things that remind me of the person who has died
  • I find it difficult to trust people
  • I feel bitter or angry
  • I am finding it hard to move on
  • I feel numb
  • I feel that my life is meaningless or that I have lost my purpose
  • I feel that I am in a state of shock
  • I feel unable to carry out my usual responsibilities after my loss
  • I feel unable to remember positive memories about the person who has dies
  • I have blamed myself for my loss
  • I have wished I had passed instead of my loved one
  • I have wished I had also passed to be with my loved one
  • I feel lonely
  • I sometimes find it hard to accept that my loved one is dead

The link between grief and addiction

Grief is a hotbed of complex feelings. It can catalyse what sometimes feels like an existential crisis. This can drive people into a search for coping mechanisms. Unfortunately, however, coping mechanisms often tend to be harmful. This is where the reliance on drugs, alcohol or addictive behaviours such as gambling, shopping or obsessive internet use can come in. These addictive stimuli can provide some solace – through a rush of dopamine. But this rush is short-lived, meaning we often have to repeat behaviours in order to feel the same relief. However, repeating these behaviours can start to rewire our brains, meaning that addiction cycles become stronger and start to cement themselves into our daily lives.

Treatment and support

If you are dealing with grief specifically, there are several avenues of support available. These include:

  • Speaking to professional bereavement lines
  • Speak to your GP
  • Access therapy
  • Utilise peer support
  • Listen to support guides
  • Make lifestyle changes
  • Practice mindfulness

If you are struggling with addiction and grief simultaneously, you may benefit from accessing addiction treatment. This can take different forms, such as:

Seek help today

Just because an experience is universal doesn’t mean it is not difficult. Everyone deserves support during dark hours. If you are looking for support for addiction and grief, you can contact us to get a sense of the types of intervention available in order to decide what treatment may be best suited to your current needs.

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