Grief, Trauma, and Addiction: Recognizing the Signs and Getting Help

There are few things that are universally experienced; unfortunately, grief is one of them. At some point in our lives, we will all lose someone we love, and each one of us will cope in our own ways. Sometimes, however, the shock and tragedy of loss can crystallize grief into long-term trauma, which can lead to self-medication with drugs or alcohol. Some of the most recent data indicate that over 34 percent of people struggling with substance use disorder (SUD) also battle “complicated grief” (grief that exceeds cultural and societal norms in terms of duration, severity, or both.

What Does Complicated Grief Look Like?

Complicated grief is also sometimes known as prolonged grief disorder. It affects between 10-15 percent of all bereaved people, and the risk significantly increases when death is sudden or violent and leaves mourners without the opportunity to say a proper goodbye.

Additional risk factors include a history of anxiety or mood disorders. Women are at higher risk for complicated grief. An estimated 20 percent of people receiving treatment for mental health issues have an unrecognized form of the condition.

Some of the primary symptoms of complicated grief include:

  • Severe and intense sorrow and pain for an extended duration
  • Inability to focus on anything other than the loss
  • Extreme or excessive focus on reminders of the loved one
  • Intense and persistent longing for your deceased loved one

These behaviors may look different based on the nature of the relationship, but it’s important that you have a healthy means of coping with this loss to avoid long-term mental health issues and self-harm.

The Relationship between Grief and Addiction

Grief and addiction are generally linked by the trauma the person experiences in the wake of their loss. This trauma can be arresting and leave many in emotional shock that ultimately turns into a back-and-forth pattern of severe pain and numbness. It’s common for people to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs in order to cope with this trauma. Other behaviors that can signal your grief is leading to substance abuse include:

  • Hiding from Grief or Refusing to Deal with It
  • Inability to Display Proper Coping Skills
  • Replacing Your Relationship with Your Loved One with Drugs or Alcohol

If you find yourself falling into these behaviors in the wake of a loved one’s passing, you’re not alone, and you don’t have to be afraid or ashamed to ask for help.

Substance Abuse during the Five Stages of Grief

Substance use and other coping behaviors can vary among individuals experiencing grief, influenced by their stage of grief, personal circumstances, and other factors. The states of grief include:

  • Denial – Inability to accept the loss. Behaviors in this stage may include doing everything possible to stay busy, avoiding the problem, and telling people you’re fine when you’re not. In the context of substance abuse, a person may drink or use drugs as a form of escapism so they don’t have to confront the reality of their grief.
  • Anger – Characterized by outward frustration, which may include hostility and aggression toward friends, loved ones, colleagues, and even the deceased. Other markers of the anger stage include pessimism and sarcasm.
  • Bargaining – This behavior can include fixating on your role in your deceased loved one’s life, getting anxious about any negative encounters you may have had, comparing yourself to others, and telling yourself that you may have been able to stop their death, even though it was out of your hands. During this period, many self-medicate with alcohol or anxiety medicine.
  • Depression – At this stage, bereavement can crystallize into long-term depression, leading you to cope using prescription or illicit drugs and alcohol. Addiction and depression are closely linked, and there are few incidents that can lead to depression quicker than the loss of a loved one.
  • Acceptance – While there is no choice but to accept that your loved one is gone, many never make it to the positive and healthy behaviors that characterize the acceptance stage and ultimately turn to substance use instead.

If your grief has led to substance abuse, acceptance of your loss may not ultimately come until you enter recovery.

What Are Some Treatments for Grief-Related Addiction?

Each person’s grief and mourning period will be different, and thus, they will benefit from different types of therapy. There are, however, several commonly practiced therapies that can help treat grief, including:

While grief, on its own, may be treated through a general course of psycho and occupational therapy, as well as the short-term use of medications, co-occurring grief and addiction will require comprehensive treatment to address grief as well as the alcohol or drug abuse that emerged from it.

Starting the Process: Getting Help for Grief and Addiction

It can be hard to admit that your grief has led to an alcohol or drug problem and that it’s stopping you from moving forward. It’s important to realize that you don’t have to fight this alone and that grief is not a sign of weakness. It takes a tremendous amount of strength and courage to ask for help. There are many ways to start the process, depending on your resources and comfort level. You can even start with online therapy and transition to inpatient or outpatient rehab if you think you need more help

Recovery Unplugged understands the role that grief and trauma can play in addiction, and we’re ready to help you or your loved one overcome your alcohol or drug abuse and move forward. We offer multiple levels of care, have locations nationwide, and are in-network with most major insurance companies to make treatment more accessible.

Our music-assisted treatment approaches are among several therapeutic options available that can potentially help individuals process grief-related trauma. Contact us today at 800 55-REHAB to start your treatment, recovery, and future. You don’t have to do this alone.



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