Loving another person can mean losing that person to death. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 2.5 million people die nationwide each year, and the person who dies leaves an average of four or five mourners behind. While grief is common, and some might say that experiencing grief is just part of the experience of being human, grief that is intense and overwhelming or grief that lasts for an extended period of time without an end in sight can lead to other difficulties, including drug abuse and addiction.
It’s common for people who experience a loss to feel low, sad and bereft. They may disbelieve that the death has occurred, and they may have difficulty coming to terms with the overwhelming feelings of loss and pain that accompany the death. In the short term, these people may withdraw from their friends and they may find that handling day-to-day activities, such as shopping or cleaning, is difficult to handle or doesn’t seem worthwhile or rewarding. People can begin to abuse drugs or alcohol during this time, but if all goes well, the symptoms of grief can fade and ease with time. According to the National Cancer Institute, typical grief like this tends to resolve within 6 months to 2 years, regardless of what the person does about the issue.
Some people feel more intense symptoms of loss, and they may feel these signals for years. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with this so-called “complicated grief” may experience:
- Intense sensations of loss and longing
- Difficulty accepting that the loss has taken place
- Feelings of numbness or bitterness
- Social isolation
For these people, the loss doesn’t become easier to handle with time, and they may struggle in private as those around them encourage them to move on and forget what has happened. Friends and family members may be trying to help when they share these comments, but statements like this can simply intensify a person’s sense of isolation and anger, driving them deeper into the arms of grief. Without help, these people may not recover from the loss they have experienced.
The Role of Addiction
Grief can lead to intense mental distress, and some people reach out for help when they find that they simply cannot handle the pain the loss has caused. Some reach out to mental health counselors for assistance. For example, a study in OMEGA: Journal of Death and Dying found that of 1,000 people seen in one psychiatric clinic, 43 percent had experienced the death of a first-degree relative. The idea that these people had asked for help is positive, but this study also found that people who were still grieving had higher risks of significant problems, including substance abuse.
Addictive drugs often boost the production and/or uptake of chemicals the brain emits when it’s presented with something pleasurable. When people use drugs, they may feel pleased and happy, and this could be intensely important for people who are feeling ongoing misery due to pain and loss. Additionally, some substances of abuse tend to cause a feeling of calm and sedation, allowing people to relax and experience a thick and dreamless sleep. People in the midst of complicated grief who can’t seem to sleep in any other way may find this attribute quite important as well. Addictive drugs can also just slow the mind and numb the thoughts, allowing people who continually think about the death of their loved ones to feel a few moments of peace.
The pleasant sensations people feel while using drugs tend to be short-lived. The drugs wear off, forcing people to deal with their true emotions once more, and the brain can begin to engage in an arms race with the body. The brain adjusts to the presence of drugs, forcing the person to take higher doses of the drugs, and the brain adjusts to those higher doses as well. In time, this sort of dosing schedule can lead to such damage inside the brain that the person becomes unable to control his/her use of drugs. The brain simply needs those drugs in order to function normally.
Moving Past a Crisis
People who take very high doses of drugs may walk a very fine line between feeling the sensations they crave and overwhelming their bodies and causing death. Drug overdose deaths are unfortunately common, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that one unintentional drug overdose death occurred every 19 minutes in 2007. The first step people will need to accomplish in order to heal involves detoxification. Here, they’ll be provided with intense support that can allow them to stop taking in drugs, and allow the body to process all of the drugs that are still present in the body’s tissues. It can be a difficult time for people who are grieving, as the physical discomfort of detox can blend with the memories and pain they have been suppressing. The urge to lean on drugs once more might seem overwhelming, but with help, these people can move forward and learn more about why they’re tempted to use and abuse drugs instead of allowing their bodies to heal. When detox is complete, they’ll be ready to move on to healing therapies that can help them process their grief and learn how to handle emotional issues in the future.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that people who experience a death or a loss must complete a four-step grieving process, as follows:
- Accept the loss.
- Feel the pain of grief and work through it.
- Adjust to life after the loss.
- Move forward.
There is no specific time frame in which people must complete all these steps, and people tend to heal from their losses at their own rate. Therapy techniques can help people to move through these stages, however. Instead of remaining stuck in one part of the grieving process, people can learn how to deal with the losses they have endured.
Grief treatments can vary, depending on the needs of the person in treatment and the belief systems of the therapist providing care. Some therapists use cognitive behavioral techniques with their clients, encouraging them to dig down into their hidden thoughts and feelings about the loss and process those thoughts and feelings instead of burying them with drugs. This kind of therapy tends to treat the grief as a “trigger” for substance abuse, and when clients are encouraged to understand that their grief is both normal and natural, and that it doesn’t need to be medicated away, they might learn how to allow their feelings of sadness to take hold without allowing those sensations to overwhelm them. In time, they can then move on to the other stages of the grieving process.
Some therapists use a specialized treatment that borrows techniques used to help people who have post-traumatic stress disorder. In this treatment format, people are asked to recount the circumstances surrounding the death of the person they loved, and they’re asked to discuss their feelings about that death. This repetition and close examination can allow people to process all their hidden thoughts and feelings, and in time, this can also lead to a dramatic reduction in symptoms of pain and discomfort.
Any therapy for grief and substance abuse will need to focus time on relapse prevention. Anniversaries of the death, holidays, family gatherings or even special photographs can lead some people to experience a resurgence of their grief, and this wave of feeling could lead them back to substance use and abuse. In therapy, people will learn specific techniques they can use to handle their distress when a trigger for grief arises. Some people will lean on meditation or exercise as they see an anniversary approaching, while others will use progressive muscle relaxation techniques or breathing exercises to handle a sudden blow. Some people might even use touchup therapy sessions with their counselors, when their feelings begin to seem overwhelming and a relapse seems likely.
Therapy Does Work
Dealing with an addiction issue as well as a grief issue can be overwhelming, and people who have both of these conditions can feel as though they’ll never really get better. It’s important to note that therapy really does work, and that people who obtain help for their issues are able to move forward with their lives in time. One study of the issue, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 51 percent of people who had complicated grief got better when they were presented with specific grief therapy techniques, and 28 percent of people got better when they were provided with simple counseling. These statistics do indicate that all hope is not lost when it comes to grief, and that counseling can be a meaningful addition to a person’s life.
A separate study in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment looked at people who had both addiction issues and grief issues. In this study, people who received grief counseling had fewer cravings to use drugs when the study was complete. These clients were provided with therapy that helped them to communicate clearly, and it’s possible that this therapy allowed them to talk about their emotions, instead of burying them in a haze of substance use and abuse.
Talking to someone about the need for grief counseling and substance abuse therapy isn’t easy. People who are grieving can seem incredibly fragile and sad, or they can seem intensely hostile and unforgiving about any intrusion into their thoughts or their habits. Family members might be leery of speaking to someone who seems so very upset, and they may worry that holding an honest talk about the issue could just make the person feel even more alone, isolated and sad. Leaving the issue unresolved, however, could lead to continued substance abuse and the terrible consequences addiction can bring about.
Holding an intervention for addiction, under the guidance of a licensed professional, might be a good way to handle this problem. An interventionist can help the family to understand the grieving process, and this professional can also help the family to develop warm and caring messages about the issue and persuade the person to obtain needed help. An interventionist might even be willing to help the family transport the person to the treatment facility when the intervention is over. This might be a safe and caring way for a family to address an addiction issue happening in their midst.
We specialize in helping people who have both addictions and mental illnesses, and we’re happy to talk the issue of grief over with you on the phone. We can outline the treatment options we utilize at Axis, and we can help guide you to an interventionist that might help your family. Just call us to get started.