A Pandemic of Grief

By The Fix staff 04/19/21

As roughly 5 million Americans process the loss of loved ones to COVID-19, more people could be at risk for substance abuse.

Image: 
Man sitting, looking sad.
The pandemic has disrupted the rituals that are meant to help us process grief.

COVID-19 has killed more than half a million Americans. That in and of itself is a jarring statistic, but there’s another grim number to be aware of: each of those deaths has left about nine bereaved people behind. That means that roughly 5 million Americans are grappling with grief and loss, which could put them at higher risk for opioid or other substance abuse. 

Pain — whether physical, mental or emotional — can cause people to seek out relief. Too often they find it by using or abusing opioids or other drugs.

“Grief is a universal feeling that most of us will need to endure at one time or another,” says Clare Waismann, RAS/SUDCC, Waismann Method® and Domus Retreat founder. “Whether you are grieving the loss of a loved one, a job, or even a relationship, grief hurts. When the grief is the result of a death, the level of pain is substantially higher.”

The pain of grief can be accentuated by the pandemic, which has disrupted the rituals that are meant to help us process grief. If you are unable to see a loved one before they die, travel to be with your family, or have a funeral, you’re more likely to suffer from complicated grief. Complicated grief is characterized by pain that is so overwhelming it can interfere with your ability to live your day-to-day life. Normally, complicated grief affects about 7% of bereaved people, but during the pandemic the prevalence is likely even higher.

Many people with complicated grief turn to maladaptive coping strategies, including substance use and abuse. This is especially true for people who have a history of mental illness or drug dependence.

“When the pain becomes overwhelming, the natural emotional response is to search for relief,” Waismann says. “Those with a history of mental health issues or addiction are more likely to fall into a pattern of substance abuse in order to cope.”

Preventing substance abuse amid grief

There’s no prescriptive or expected way to move through grief, especially in the shadow of a global pandemic. Even the well-known Stages of Grief are often circular, rather than linear. Generally speaking, however, grief should become more manageable as time passes.

“Most people experiencing grief can start the healing process after some time,” Waismann says. “While grief is a familiar and healthy feeling to experience, it is unpleasant and unresolved grief can significantly increase addiction-related issues.”

If you feel entirely overwhelmed by grief, it’s important to reach out for professional help from a counselor before you try to self-medicate by using or abusing substances. These steps can also help you process grief:

  • Talk to your loved ones about your feelings.
  • Join a support group for people who are grieving. These are currently available online.
  • Take care of your physical and mental health by exercising and meditating.
  • Do activities that bring you joy, like reading or art.

Staying ahead of grief

If you feel that your grief is more overwhelming than it should be, you should seek professional guidance. Remember, there’s no harm in reaching out, but doing so could make a world of difference.

“You don’t have to wait until symptoms of grief persist to seek treatment,” Waismann says. “Remember, get ahead of your emotions. Don’t suffer more than you have to.”

At Domus Retreat, Waismann provides support for relapse prevention. This can include for people who are experiencing grief, including the death of a loved one during the pandemic. The entire experience at Domus is designed to help people focus on their recovery and wellness.

“There are no chores, no pre-set expectations, length of treatment or protocols. We will provide care based on your unique needs,” Waismann says. “We also offer services to support your overall physical and mental wellbeing including yoga, massage, drama therapy, tai chi, and individual psychotherapy.”

Stepping back can be exactly what a person needs in order to process their grief and move forward in a healthy way.

“We reach you where you are at and help you get where you need to be,” Waismann says.

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