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Alcohol Use During Grief: How it Affects the Healing Process

Many people turn to alcohol when coping with grief, either stemming from their own terminal illness diagnosis or from watching a loved one go through hospice and pass on. April is Alcohol Awareness Month, organized by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence as an attempt to reduce the stigma of alcohol abuse. Denial is a common trait among those who struggle with alcoholism, as they underestimate the amount they are drinking, how long their problem has gone on, and the impact it has on their life points out If you have recently lost a loved one in hospice in Santa Clara or elsewhere and are using alcohol to numb your grief, please know you are not alone. There are bereavement services such as support groups that can help you through.

Alcohol and Coping

Losing a loved one is certainly one of the most upsetting and painful experiences one can have. It’s common for you to go through a wide range of emotions, from anger and denial to sadness and despair. Each person goes through the grieving process differently, and they don’t always do it in the healthiest manner. Some turn to alcohol in an attempt to numb the sadness, pain, and grief that follows a major loss such as the death of a parent, spouse, or child.

Sadly, self-medicating all that emotional pain often leads to alcohol addiction, with grief’s impact on mental health taking a serious toll — even for the seemingly strongest and most resilient individuals. During the grieving process, it’s critical that you experience and express emotions so that you can eventually move on with life and heal. However, some people get stuck as they begin struggling with unresolved grief, which is basically grief that lasts longer than normal.

This type of grief makes it difficult if not impossible for the individual to adequately manage their daily tasks. Unresolved grief sets in when they feel overwhelming guilt over the loss, or when they consider the death unfair, or when they have lost a loved one through a violent or unexpected death. Grief can also trigger clinical depression, and it can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts or actions. Many times, unresolved grief and depression may make someone more vulnerable to the development of a substance abuse problem. When a person is unable to work through feelings of loss in a healthy way, they may decide to self-medicate with alcohol. Drinking may numb the pain temporarily, but the effect is always short-lived.

There is no form of self-medicating with substances that will effectively erase the pain of loss. In fact, alcohol acts as a depressant in the body, intensifying negative emotions, like shame or sadness. Alcohol impairs every part of daily life, from the quality of relationships to the ability to hold down a job. Other factors may make it more likely a person will turn to alcohol after a loss, such as a history of depression, anxiety, or previous addiction.

The Association Between Grief and Addiction

According to the American Addiction Centers, several studies have revealed a relationship between bereavement and hazardous alcohol consumption. People suffering from complicated grief are particularly vulnerable to developing an addiction as they try to rid themselves of their ongoing and severe mourning. One recent study shows that both men and women with major depressive disorder and complicated grief have much higher rates of alcohol dependence compared with depressed individuals without complicated grief. Researchers who looked into the effect of grief on brain function found that complicated grief triggers the nucleus accumbens, which is a part of the brain’s reward center that dictates addiction-related behaviors. Brain scans of affected individuals show that activation of neural pathways took place in the area of the brain that is associated with the longing for alcohol and drugs. This suggests that memories of loved ones could promote addictive behaviors in those who suffer from complicated grief.

Get Treatment

Those who self-medicate with alcohol are best treated for both grief and substance abuse at the same time. A stay at an alcohol or drug rehab treatment center may be necessary to start, then, after detox is completed, the real work of treatment starts. Grief counseling plays a vital role in the recovery process. If grief is not properly addressed, the potential for relapse is always there. Therapists can help the individual express grief-related emotions, such as frustration, sadness, or anger. They can help the person find ways to cope with painful feelings as they come up without having to rely on alcohol.

Grief support is also vital, such as through support groups. It is always comforting to know others are going through what you are at this very moment. In the immediate aftermath of the loss, loved ones left behind typically are bombarded with support from family and friends. However, over time, that support drops sharply off, leaving grieving individuals facing a profound sense of isolation. A grief support group offers much-needed support, guidance, and resources so they no longer feel all alone.

There are support groups out there that match your unique situation, such as partner loss or child loss. Family counseling is also a wise idea, as both grief and alcohol addiction can impact the whole family.

Contact Pathways Home Health and Hospice  

To learn more about our bereavement services and support groups, please reach out to us at 888-978-1306.