Substance Use Disorder Can Complicate Grief

By The Fix staff 08/27/21

People with a history of Substance Use Disorder are more likely to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms after a loss. Here's how to avoid that.

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In the past eighteen months, more than four million people around the globe have died from COVID-19. This massive loss has shined a spotlight on a normal, but painful, part of daily life — grief. Grief can occur for a variety of reasons: you can grieve the loss of a relationship, or the end of a career. However, the most acute and deep grief often comes around death.

Although there’s no prescriptive way to move through grief, there are healthy ways to process loss. If grief begins interfering with your daily functioning and keeps you from healing, you may be experiencing complicated grief. This condition can have a big impact on your life, and often requires medical treatment.

Here’s what you should know about grief, especially if there is a history of substance use disorder in your family.

Substance Use Disorder and Grief: Risk for Complications

Grieving can be incredibly painful. That often leads people to look for coping mechanisms to get through. This can be problematic for people who have a history of substance use disorder. Research has shown that people who have a history of addiction are more likely to experience complicated grief, the type that keeps you from moving on and healing. In addition, when people with a history of substance use disorder experience complicated grief, they’re more likely to turn toward maladaptive coping strategies, like using drugs or alcohol.

If you experience a loss, you should try to be proactive about maintaining your sobriety while you are grieving. Talk to trusted loved ones and medical professionals about how to cope with the pain of grieving if you are struggling. Have an emergency plan so that you know what to do if you’re very close to relapse, or if you have used.

The Stages of Grief

Most people have heard of the five stages of grief. Although people don’t move through the stages in a predictable manner, the stages can help normalize how you feel when you’re grieving. This alone can be helpful, reminding you that many other people have been through what you’re experiencing.

The five stages of grief, as explained by researcher Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, are:

  • Denial: When you first experience a shocking loss, you might not be able to comprehend it. The denial phase is characterized by feeling numb, and focusing on just getting through each day.
  • Anger: As you begin to understand the depth of your loss, you may become angry about it. You might feel abandoned by God or the universe, or that the loss is unfair. Although anger might feel like a surprising emotion while grieving, it’s important to feel your anger and move through it.
  • Bargaining: During the bargaining phase, you try to exert control and change the outcome of the loss. You might find yourself saying things like, “I’ll stay sober, as long as I get my mom back.”
  • Depression: At this stage, the reality of loss has settled in. You’ve realized that you can’t bargain a solution or rail against the injustice of the loss. You settle into depression, which may put you at increased risk for relapse.
  • Acceptance: Finally, after moving through the pain of grief, you might find yourself coming out the other side. You may notice that you’re remembering your loved one with joy and gratitude, rather than just focusing on the pain of losing them.

The New, Sixth Stage of Grief

Recently, David Kessler, a grief expert who worked with Kübler-Ross, introduced a sixth stage of grief: finding meaning. To truly heal from a loss, you must find a way to create a meaningful life, living in a way that honors the person you loved and the meaning of their life.

This sixth stage is especially important for people who have a history of substance use disorder. In healing from addiction, it’s important to create a meaningful life. This can give you the impetus that you need to stay sober. Focusing on the components of a meaningful life — self-awareness, positive relationships, and intrinsic motivations — can support you in overcoming grief in a healthy way.

A Hand to Hold: When to Get Help

Grief can become overwhelming. Communicating with your healthcare providers and your recovery community can help you navigate the grieving process. However, if you experience any of the following, you should reach out for more immediate help:

  • An inability to recall good, happy memories about your loved one.
  • Being unable to acknowledge or accept a loss
  • Having thoughts of self-harm or suicide
  • Thinking frequently about drug or alcohol use or relapse.

Grief never goes away entirely. However, you can learn to incorporate grief and memories into your life in an emotionally healthy way, remembering what was, while continuing to live your life in the present and future.

Sunshine Coast Health Centre is a non 12-step drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in British Columbia. Learn more here.

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