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Man dealing with unresolved grief and substance use

Unresolved Grief and Substance Abuse Are Connected

If you’ve found your way here to this article, the odds are that you’re in a tough place right now. No matter if it’s with unresolved grief or substance abuse, you are not alone.

Maybe you, or a loved one, are overwhelmed with grief. So overwhelmed that you find yourself coping with a glass of wine, a few extra sleeping pills or even a prescription pain reliever for a long-forgotten injury. 

If that’s you, please know you’re not alone. It can be difficult to move beyond hurt without help. That’s why we’re so glad you’re here. 

Today, we’ll take a look at how unresolved grief and substance use are connected, the warning signs you might want to be on the lookout for, and how you can take the first step toward healing. 

What Does Unresolved Grief Look Like?

When you’re swimming in sorrow, the truth of your reality can be about as clear as mud. For some readers, it might be absolutely obvious that you’re struggling to overcome unresolved grief. For others, things might not be so evident. 

So let’s start by looking at where grief comes from and what a typical grief journey looks like. 

Where does grief come from?

When we think about a person dealing with grief, we usually think of someone who lost a person they love to death—and this is, without a doubt, the most common reason for grief. But it’s not the only one. 

There are many things we can grieve over the course of our lives that are legitimate and can be life-altering, including: 

  • The loss of a loved one through divorce or desertion. 
  • Losing a job can result in grief regarding needed income or a lack of purpose. 
  • The loss of personal bodily autonomy in cases of abuse. 
  • Losing practical bodily function in cases of injury or disease. 

In other words: grief usually comes after the loss of someone or something meaningful, often without any choice on your part in the matter and with lasting consequences. 

What does a typical grief journey look like?

While nothing about grief could be described as “typical” by the person living through it, researchers have identified a pattern that most people follow on a healthy grief journey. 

Referred to as a “birds-eye perspective,” the process involves making your way “along a road, albeit bumpy and strewn with potholes, that leads to acceptance of the inevitability of the loss, integration of its reality into ongoing life, and reimagining a future with the possibility of joy and satisfaction.” 

And while this pattern does not indicate when or how long—grief happens on its own schedule—it does show forward motion, with the ultimate goal of grief taking a backseat to your everyday life. Still present, not forgotten, but no longer dominating the thoughts of your day. 

What happens when grief goes unresolved?

Okay, so if a typical grief journey looks like a difficult, winding road that—slowly but surely—takes grief out of the driver’s seat, what does unresolved grief look like? 

Unresolved grief, often called “complicated grief,” occurs when the journey gets stalled in such a way that a person struggles to make the full trip in, through and out of grief. It is particularly challenging for people who grieve the death of a family member or close friend, with around 7% of bereaved people struggling with complicated grief

Complicated grief might show up in the form of wishful thinking, whereby a person imagines a different reality other than true and present circumstances, to the point that reality itself suffers. 

Of course, whether or not your grief meets the definition of complicated, you may still find yourself struggling to manage the emotions and logistics of your loss. That’s understandable. And remember: you’re not alone. 

How Does Unresolved Grief and Substance Use Interact?

If we consider all that we’ve covered so far about a person in grief—or if you’re currently working your way through grief right now—it’s easy to imagine how the day-to-day might wear a person down. 

After all, if you lose your spouse and the father of your children, you still must get up each day, and make breakfast, and prepare lunches and take the kids to school. You must work, and take care of yourself, and pick up your children, and make dinner and interact and get your kids ready for bed, and encourage baths, and read books and give kisses. There are dishes to wash, and chores to do, and bills to pay. You must take a shower and get some sleep. And you must do it all again tomorrow. 

While family and friends may come in to offer practical support, you still have to face every day without the person you love. That’s so incredibly difficult. 

All of this to say, it makes sense that you might find yourself with a glass of wine on the couch each night, breathing through the pain. And maybe you drink a second glass most nights to really solidify that peaceful feeling. 

Or perhaps you double down on sleeping pills in order to rest. Maybe you take some prescription opioids to ease all the pain you’re feeling. Maybe you just get high. 

You likely see these actions as coping mechanisms—a way to make it through another day. And you probably view them as temporary. You might even say to yourself, “As soon as I get over this hurdle, I’ll stop.” 

It makes sense that you’d feel that way; it really does. You’ve been through so much. 

Still, there’s a reason you might consider stopping now—and getting help if you need it. 

Coping with unresolved grief through substance abuse can lead to addiction. 

Research tells us that when people who are struggling with grief use substances to numb pain, it actually makes it harder for them to cope with difficult situations over the long haul. 

This tracks, right? After all, if you’re facing the loss of a loved one—like the wife and mom mentioned above—you may start by using a substance to cope with your loss. But because life does not slow down, typical non-grief-related stressors will still show up from time to time. Your mind and body will be accustomed to handling tough times with drugs or alcohol. 

And so you’ll have to make one of two choices: 

  1. Stick to your current level of substance consumption. Struggle to cope. 
  2. Up your current level of substance consumption to cope with new stressors. 

You can easily see how addictions form over time when a person uses drugs or alcohol to cope with grief. We’re seeing this play out with devastating consequences in recent years. 

The pandemic shines a light on the dangers of grief and substance use. 

More than 910,000 people have died from COVID-19 at the time of this writing. Lives and livelihoods hang in the balance every single day. People have lost loved ones, jobs, access to childcare and so much more. And the usual tragedies of life remain as well. 

Grief, as you well know, is rampant. 

It’s no wonder, then, that we’re seeing an alarming number of overdose deaths in recent years. In 2021, 100,306 people died in the U.S. of overdose (compared to 78,056 the year before). 

That number represents a 28.5% increase, year over year, and tens of thousands of people who, like yourself, were probably just struggling to make it through the day with grief. 

Thankfully, you are not merely a number—and you do not need to be just another statistic. You can get help now before it’s too late. 

What Might Treatment Look Like for Unresolved Grief and Substance Use Disorder?

In discussing the trauma of the pandemic, Gomecindo Lopez, with Emergency Health Network, cautions against putting pressure on a person who’s grieving. He says, “That’s probably one of the worst things you can tell a family member is to just get over it or let it go.” 

You know all too well that “getting over it” isn’t really an option. If it was, you would have done that already. Still, if you hope to break free from the oppressive coupling of grief and addiction, you’d likely benefit from treatment

You can work with medical and mental health professionals at a treatment center to get back on the healthy journey of grief navigation and also break free from any unhealthy coping mechanisms you’ve picked up along the way. 

With a therapist, you’ll work on removing negative behaviors like criticizing yourself, unrealistic thinking and social isolation. And you’ll begin to replace those behaviors with new habits that build your ability to solve problems, take action and reach out for help when you need it. 

With time.  Let’s pause on this phrase, “with time.” There’s so much left unsaid here. “With time” requires immense patience and a hopeful heart. It means that some days will be light while others feel quite heavy. It is made more bearable when you’re spending that time with others—be it family, friends, peers or professional counselors

With time, you’ll learn to cope with all that life throws your way without reaching for drugs or alcohol. You’ll mourn in a way that allows you to connect fully with who or what you lost and yet also to imagine joy in your new and present reality. And then, to go out and find it. 

If we can help you on your journey through grief or recovery from addiction, please reach out today at 844.767.9404. 

Written by Stephanie Thomas, contributing writer with Promises Behavioral Health

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