Grief Reactions–the Costs of Addiction

Grief reactions are some of the most painful experiences we can have. And, losses can be far more wide-ranging and complex than we typically think. So can grief. An addictive illness is a deep and fertile ground for losses of all sorts, as well as for complicated and prolonged grief experiences.

What Exactly is Grief?

Grief is a natural reaction to loss. How deep the bond or attachment to what has been lost determines the impact of the grief reaction. Typically, we think of grief occurring after the loss of a person through death or divorce, for example. However, grief also occurs when losing anything one has considered valuable or essential or has been emotionally invested in. The unexpected loss of a valued job, for instance, or an inexpensive but irreplaceable heirloom can evoke grief.

Grieving is more than an emotional reaction. There are elements of grief that cross the many realms of our lives including our physical health, thoughts, behaviors, social interactions, cultural practices, and spirituality. And, unfortunately, a state of grief can be complicated by financial distress, declining daily performance of responsibilities, and even at times, legalities.

Grief is typically considered to be a process with various stages, although it is not a linear process. People can fluctuate between distinct grief stages. Broadly, these stages involve:

Denial—usually our first response to the shock of loss—This can’t be true.”

Anger—feeling the unfairness of the loss—”How could this have happened?” “Who is to blame?”

Bargaining—often a religion or spiritually based pleading for the loss to be undone—“I will do anything to make this not so.”

Depression—a retreat inward, shutting down with the pain of the loss.

Acceptance—coming to some peace with the finality of the loss.

How People Grieve

There is no right or wrong way to grieve, although some are entrapped in a complicated grief process that disrupts their lives for long periods of time. And, such complications typically involve unhealthy coping strategies. Substance use is a common type of unhealthy strategy that can extend a normal grief reaction into years of suffering.

Everyone who is in grief will experience disruption, and it is often acute and debilitating for some time. Particularly, losing someone you love is one of the most difficult challenges of life. It is overwhelming and filled with intense emotion. Also, basic life necessities can become too overwhelming to manage such as adequate sleep or nutrition. It is usual too, for one’s ability to concentrate, make decisions or problem-solve to be compromised. Everyone who is grieving will have their own individual responses. While some may cry or even weep, others may not. Some may cling to the company of others in their sorrow, while others become reclusive.

Types of Loss that Precipitate Grief

A sense of loss can be a very individual experience as well. What horribly grieves me may seem not so important a loss in your life, for example, especially when the loss is of a possession or of something more abstract. We may grieve the loss of people, objects, lifestyle, abilities, hopes, dreams or other intangibles like self-image, reputation or self-respect.

Some common losses that ignite a grief response are:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce
  • Loss of physical abilities
  • Illness
  • Mental decline
  • Separations
  • Loss of employment
  • Property damage or loss
  • Retirement
  • Change of homes
  • Children leaving the home
  • A loved one’s illness or decline
  • Financial losses
  • Significant lowering of lifestyle standards
  • Failed ambitions and goals

Losses in Addiction—Loved Ones

The loved ones of an addicted person incur multiple losses, and if the addiction is prolonged, they will have serial losses related to a loved one’s addiction. Some of the losses experienced by family members and friends of someone addicted are the loss of emotional intimacy and support, as well as loss of shared life responsibilities in such things as co-parenting or earning income.

Many loved ones also lose a sense of comfort, safety and well-being in their daily lives, living in relentless stress, anxiety, fear, and dread. Loss of social standing due to widespread stigma and misinformation about addiction is also sadly common.

Since living with addiction is chronically stressful with episodes of crises, loved ones also lose physical and mental health, and very often, their own life plans. Addiction within a family can also cause significant financial hardship and loss of usual standards of living or future plans, such as college education for children in the family.

An Addicted Person’s Losses

Living with an addiction inevitably means there is a progressive series of losses inwardly as well as in one’s outer life. Cognitive functioning declines, for example, and memory, concentration, problem-solving and decision-making become compromised. Emotional stability also erodes.

Socially, relationships become strained, damaged, estranged or broken. Interactions can be erratic, inappropriate, and conflicted, impairing one’s ability to navigate social events, the workplace, and family participation. Consequently, social and familial relationships suffer, productivity suffers, and one’s standing in the community at large suffers, too.

There can also be significant psychological losses in addiction. For example, self-image, identify, self-esteem and self-respect dramatically shift and spiral downward. Self-loathing is common, as is despair, hopelessness, helplessness, and loss of control.

Substance Use and Grief

Grief can debilitate even the healthiest and most resilient among us. If we add substance use to the mix, the toll

dramatically increases. A common occurrence is that when substance abuse becomes a coping strategy for grief, the grief can become postponed, sometimes for years. Known as unresolved grief, such an experience can be a significant and disturbing undertow in one’s life, often not even sparking conscious awareness.

Substance use can tamp down the emotions of grief, stopping the natural flow of a grief process. And, people can even feel no significant loss has occurred as emotions are numbed in substance use. More often, however, suppressing the pain of grief only works in temporary episodes of intoxication. When pain emerges again, one is triggered to use more, and a vicious cycle of self-medication is established.

There is always the risk of depression in a period of grief, but the use of substances greatly increases vulnerability. And, further use along with prolonged grief, can deepen such a depression to suicidal proportions. Additionally, any co-occurring mental health problem will be will worsened by an addiction.

Addressing Loss in Rehab

The issue of loss is certainly no stranger to rehab. Everyone in addiction treatment will have some degree of loss to deal with, and many will have a profound amount. Simply addiction itself brings its own losses, but there are also losses incurred prior to addiction that will feel fresh for some.

In the usual course of addiction treatment, one must cope with the traumatic experience of having had an addictive illness, and all the events that occurred during time spent addicted. These are commonalities that everyone in rehab will have. Also, the process of letting go of substance use itself is a loss experience. No matter how deeply substances take you into pain and despair, there is always the feeling of losing a ‘friend’ that helped out in bad times. If our substance use did nothing for us, we would not have courted it in the first place.

Those who have postponed a grieving process by self-medicating with substances will find they have an opportunity to resolve the grief they shelved with substance use. And, they will not be alone in a group of other addicted people seeking recovery. Withdrawal and detox, plus the support of a therapeutic environment, provide the time and space to resolve grief or to make significant strides in doing so. It is an important part of any relapse prevention plan to begin such work in rehab, hit significant milestones with it, and make plans to continue the work if needed when discharged from a treatment program.

Finding the Right Help to Help You

If you or a loved one have been struggling with the negative consequences of an addiction, there is a great deal of hope and help available. You don’t have to struggle alone or any longer. If you are willing to put yourself in the right place and in the right hands of people trained to help you, you can also be among the countless people who have beat their addictions.

Addiction recovery is not an easy task, but with the right guidance, it is certainly possible. In fact, if you add the willingness to participate honestly and to follow suggestions, your chances of recovery dramatically increase. And, with the wide array of treatment programs available today, you can find the program and treatment philosophy that best suits you. Feeling comfortable in the rehab you choose puts you ahead of the game. You can settle in more quickly and get to the real business at hand.

If you or a loved one are ready to pursue recovery, we can help you find the perfect place. Our business is to research and keep abreast of treatment programs and facilities operating today. We have an extensive database with which to find recommendations that match your clinical needs, preferences and desired location. We will also help you smooth the way by clarifying your insurance coverage, so you won’t run into any dead-ends with your choices.

Addiction treatment works, and recovery is a reality. Countless people are substance-free today because they went to rehab and did the work they needed to do. If it’s your time, give us a call. The healthy, happy, and successful life you crave is waiting for you. We can get you started.