Alcohol & Grief: Coming to Terms with Loss

Grief is an incredibly difficult human experience that all inevitably face at some point in their lives.

While it’s difficult, there’s a healthy process that people tend to follow to get through it, including moving through its different stages.

For some, however, grief isn’t straightforward and can introduce other issues. Research shows that complicated grief is linked to alcohol dependence. [1] Complicated grief occurs for around 7% of people. [2]

In these individuals, it’s very likely that professional support will be required to support the grieving process in a healthier way.

What is Grief?

Person looking sad

Grief is a deep experience, a range of emotions, and a reaction to loss. Usually, it’s associated with the death of a person.

It’s possible, also, to feel grief in relation to the loss of a pet, a lost dream, a chronic illness or diagnosis, and the end of a relationship (including romantic relationships or in relation to family estrangement).

The symptoms of grief include emotional pain, overwhelming sadness, shock, rage, and numbness. Some people can actually dissociate when the feelings are too much.

Others can hallucinate hearing the person who has died, or thinking that they have seen them. These difficult emotions and experiences are quite normal, especially in the early stages of grief.

The Process of Grief & its Stages

It’s only natural that as human individuals with distinct personalities, we experience grief in our own individual way.

This is influenced by personality, the type of relationship had with the person who died, and various other things. It’s only natural then that the amount of time it takes a person to process grief is unique.

This is viewed in families where you might see some family members taking longer than others to reveal various emotions. There are some who might suppress feelings, those who talk and share, and others who exhibit unusual behaviours and reactions.

Relationship dynamics in relation to the person who passed as well as to those in the current environment can impact how an individual goes through the experience.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a psychiatrist who wrote a book about death and dying in the 1960s. She gathered information from researching people with terminal diagnoses. In the book, she identified five stages of grief.

These include:

  1. Denial. This stage is characterised by shock and denial. To be able to cope with the loss, it’s natural for people to go into this state.
  2. Anger. It’s important to feel rage and anger. It’s an emotion that many find easier to manage than others and so it can last a while and be quite extreme and come out in unexpected places and moments.
  3. Bargaining. This stage is where people become caught in a place where they think of all the things they could have done to change what happened or what is about to happen.
  4. Depression. What’s important to remember here is that it’s normal to experience depression in relation to loss and it’s not a mental illness if triggered by grief. Depression is profound and can make people feel as if they don’t want to go on without the other person.
  5. Acceptance. There comes a point when the fact your loved one has died is a reality that you accept despite how much it can still hurt, how much the loss may have changed who you are as a person, and the difficult emotions that can still arise at unexpected moments. You start to carry on with daily activities and keep on going with life.

Why it’s Important to Grieve

While grief can be extremely difficult to live through, it’s really important to face. Doing so is healthy.

It creates space for the pain to be processed, for you to find words if that’s what you want to do, or to connect to others.

Grieving in a way that is helpful includes talking and being around others, especially those who understand you and the relationship you had with the person. It can be beneficial to talk to a therapist or counsellor and also accept support from friends.

Another thing to keep in mind is to keep looking after yourself as well as you can in terms of eating a balanced diet and accessing some type of exercise (i.e. walking or yoga) or meditative act.

There are some instances where people will come to experience complicated grief. This can be triggered because of the nature of the relationship with the person.

For example, losing a parent that a child was abandoned by, or abused by in some way, can lead to grief manifesting in different ways, for example through substance abuse.

How Alcohol & Grief are Connected

Alcohol

As just mentioned, it’s important to face, feel, and process grief despite how difficult it is. For some people, however, this can feel impossible.

It’s quite common for people to drink when someone has died. This can quite often happen at wakes, especially.

For some, though, alcohol consumption increases become a daily habit and can be used as a way to try and numb the emotional pain and psychological sensations of grief. The pain can, of course, also feel very physical. In such a state, alcohol use can start to evolve.

Alcohol use disorder and grief

When people use alcohol through a behaviour known as self-medicating to try and numb and escape painful feelings, it can actually lead to unresolved grief. This is because the process of grief has been prevented from unfolding naturally.

Actually, alcohol acts as a depressant and in many cases also exacerbates grief making the experience worse as the brain’s chemistry and bodily hormones come out of balance.

This can lead to impaired mental health in the long-term. Some people can develop depression, suicidal ideation and behaviours, and alcohol addiction.

For those with a history of previous addiction, alcohol use disorder might be more likely to arise. It’s really important for people in this situation to seek external sources of support during this time around alcohol use and coping mechanisms.

Grief is a process that can take a while, even a few years to unfold. Drinking as a way of managing feelings results in the grieving process taking longer.

A person who might feel as though they’re starting to accept the loss might reduce alcohol intake to be met with a wave of memories and emotions that the alcohol had been masking.

A cycle can develop where the person drinks more to manage their feelings. Alcohol dependence becomes a real risk in this situation. Where addiction or dependency exists, professional treatment becomes essential.

Signs You Need Rehab Support for Alcohol Use

Alcohol addiction

There’s often a space of difficulty in identifying that alcohol use has moved into problematic or addictive habits. One of the reasons for this is because of how socially accepted drinking alcohol is.

A misuse problem can go masked for a very long time.

However, there are particular signs when considering mental, emotional and physical health, which reveal that drinking habits have become a problem and professional input is necessary to quit.

Signs that reveal the need for rehabilitation include:

  • Drinking regularly, or every day.
  • Feeling you need alcohol to get through the day.
  • Trying to hide and lie about how much you drink.
  • Experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety (i.e. panic attacks).
  • Harmful drinking levels. This can increase as tolerance does.
  • People worry about how much and how often you drink.
  • Risky behaviours around alcohol use.
  • The strain on relationships and finances due to drinking.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms (i.e. shaking, sickness and diarrhoea, hallucinations, seizures).

What Treatment is There for Alcohol Use Disorder & Grief?

Therapy

The recovery process for alcohol use disorder will require treatment from health professionals. The best way to access this is through a private rehab clinic.

This means you get a personalised care programme targeted at your specific needs.

When you enter rehab, you’ll be assessed. The assessment covers various topics and this will be a time when you can mention the grief you’re experiencing.

Staff can adapt your treatment plan to include therapies and medications that can help with mood, mental health conditions, and grief.

The focus, of course, is on alcohol use recovery, but rehab clinics tend to take holistic approaches which means that you’re supported in different areas.

What Treatments are on Offer at Rehab?

Residential

It’s understandable that entering rehab will come with a range of intense emotions.

This will come from the idea of quitting alcohol, from the re-emergence of grief if you’re dealing with this too, and of course because of how alcohol has affected your brain chemistry and hormones as mentioned earlier.

There are treatments that target all areas. These include:

Some residents will be prescribed medications depending on the complexity of their diagnosis. If you’re identified as having a mood disorder or mental health condition such as anxiety or depression, you might be prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

People who have developed an alcohol dependency, they’ll require a seven to ten-day detox under the care of an in-house doctor. This includes a prescription for a medication called Librium which safely weans the patient off alcohol.

Final Thoughts…

The pain of grief can feel horrific and relentless. While there’s a process that people go through which finally leads to a place of acceptance of loss, a person is never truly the same as they were before.

For some, in particular, loss can be debilitating.

Complicated grief is very much linked to alcohol use. When this happens, people use alcohol to self-medicate around their emotions.

It can, however, cause the agonising part of grief to stretch on and for alcohol addiction and dependency to develop.

In this situation, seeking professional help is essential. Rehab clinics around the UK can treat people with alcohol and also provide support around the grieving process.

FAQs

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How does alcohol affect the grieving process?

Alcohol use can slow down the grieving process and make the experience of it heightened. This is because of how it can mask emotions which later pop up and due to its effects on brain chemistry and hormonal regulation making emotions feel more extreme.

What are the symptoms of complicated grief?

The main symptoms of complicated grief are intense sadness, ongoing rumination about and obsessing over objects, memories, and things to do with your loved one, and being unable to participate in usual activities.

What is unresolved grief?

Unresolved grief is when the feelings associated with grief continue for a much longer time than usual. People can also get “caught” in particular stages of grief (i.e. in anger or depression).

How do you deal with loss in recovery?

It’s really important to connect with others when you experience a loss and are in the process of recovery. Spending time with people who are positive influences, going to peer support groups, and accessing professional counselling can support you to identify and adopt healthy coping mechanisms.

References

[1] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0740547218305749

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3384440/