Ask an Expert: Where Can a Grieving Alcoholic Get Help?

By Dr. Richard Juman 04/12/16

The Fix's Professional Voices editor gives advice to a grieving mother who fell into alcoholism after losing her son to overdose.

Ask an Expert: Where Can a Grieving Alcoholic Get Help?

Dear Expert, I need some help. My son died of an overdose three years ago. I was so devastated that I began drinking alcohol to cope and now I am an alcoholic. Is this a common thing with grieving parents? Where can I go for help?

Richard Juman, PsyD: I’m very sorry for your loss. Tragically, in recent years, thousands of parents in our country have faced the loss of a child due to overdose.

Although everybody is different, there are aspects and stages of mourning and grief that are shared by most people who experience the loss of a child. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously proposed the five stages of normal grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—in her landmark work,On Death and Dying.

From your question, I’m assuming that your use of alcohol came pretty quickly on the heels of your son’s death. The drinking may be seen as an understandable reaction to a psychologically intolerable situation. Hopefully, once a stable recovery from alcohol has been established, you’ll be able to begin or resume the process of responding psychologically to your son’s death. 

Although you may eventually decide to seek out counseling that is specifically focused on the process of grieving, a good addiction psychotherapist is able to work on all issues and aspects of a client’s life comprising their biopsychosocial situation. Although your son’s unfortunate death was obviously the trigger that set your unhealthy drinking in motion, there may be other elements—personal, familial and social—that have contributed to your behavior and will be considered as part of your recovery process.

So my suggestion for a first step would be to connect with an addiction psychotherapist with whom you have a good rapport. Such a clinician will also be aware of other resources in your area, such as support groups and addiction medicine facilities. I mention the latter because, depending on the severity of your drinking, you might be a candidate for either inpatient or outpatient detox to ensure that you don’t experience any adverse medical consequences when you enter recovery.

There are several ways that you can connect with a good clinician. If you have a close relationship with a primary care doctor or other health care provider, those professionals might be able to recommend therapists in your area who they know are adept in working with addictive disorders. Your state psychological or social work association will likely also have a resource that will be able to direct you to therapists in your area who specialize in addiction. And there will also be a state-operated drug and alcohol system that licenses and oversees programs. I recommend that you have an initial consultation with more than one clinician or program, then stick with the one that you feel the most comfortable with.

My condolences again on your loss. But you can move forward by addressing your problem drinking, and I wish you the best of luck in getting back on track and finding peace.

Richard Juman, PsyD—a licensed clinical psychologist who has worked in the integrated health care arena for over 25 years providing direct clinical care, supervision, program development and administration across multiple settings—is The Fix's Professional Voices Editor and former President of the New York State Psychological Association. [[email protected]] Find him on twitter—@richardjuman. Full Bio.

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