A Loved One’s Death and Addiction

A Loved One's Death and Addiction

Untreated grief can lead to addiction

There are many personal factors and life circumstances, including the death of a loved one, which can lead to substance abuse and addiction. The death of a loved one invariably brings grief, and sometimes people cope with their grief in unhealthy ways. For those who have become addicted to a substance like Xanax after a loved one’s death, addressing the grief is often an important part of the addiction recovery journey.

Common Components of Grief

A 2012 Psychology Today article notes that grief is highly individualized. There is no specific correct or appropriate timeline for walking through the process. There are, however, commonalities in people’s experiences.

Common components of grief include separation distress, traumatic distress, guilt and social withdrawal. Separation distress includes a variety of feelings such as sadness, helplessness, anger, loneliness and anxiety. Traumatic distress includes feelings of shock and disbelief as well as efforts to avoid the flood of emotions caused by intrusive memories. People in grief may experience depression-type symptoms as well such as loss of energy, altered sleeping patterns and lack of interest in pleasurable activities. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration adds that people who are grieving may have nightmares or strange dreams or be more absent-minded than usual.

Integrated Versus Prolonged or Complex Grief

The normal grieving pattern involves acute grief which is gradually mixed with positive emotions. Over time, memories begin to bring joy instead of only pain. People also begin to experience acceptance and forgiveness regarding the loss and to derive a sense of meaning from the event. Eventually they come to a place of integrated grief in which memories are no longer overwhelming. The loss may help provide people with a different perspective and outlook on life and one from which they can live with more intentionality and purpose.

Sometimes for a variety of reasons, the normal grieving process becomes blocked and people experience prolonged grief, also known as complex or complicated grief. In prolonged grief people may become emotionally paralyzed. They may fear painful emotions and worry about losing control. Other common emotions include fear of forgetting or betraying their loved one, belief they will never be the same and persistent and excessive feelings of disbelief, guilt, anger or moral indignation.

The ways in which enduring grief differs neurologically from the natural grieving process is only beginning to be understood.  A 2008 article in the journal NeuroImage reports on the neural mechanisms that underlie complicated grief. Study participants, all of whom had lost loved ones, participated in brain scans during times when their grief was elicited. Reminders of their loved ones instigated pain-related brain activity in all of them. In those with complicated grief, however, there was also activity in the brain’s reward center. The authors hypothesize that relational attachment activates the reward pathways and that the neural activity persists in those experiencing complicated grief.

Grieving and Substance Abuse

People may turn to substance abuse as a response to any stage of the grieving process because substances like Xanax can numb a wide range of negative emotions. Many counselors note that substance abuse is often a distraction, or a way to keep from dealing with the strong feelings that the loss of a loved one can provoke. Sometimes people do this consciously, but sometimes they are not aware that they have glossed over and failed to fully acknowledge and grieve a significant loss.

Sometimes people seem to handle a significant loss, such as the death of a loved one, without much trouble. They may begin using substances later after a seemingly less important loss. This is because grief, especially grief that is not fully resolved, can have a cumulative effect. A later loss may trigger unconscious memories of the losses that came before.

The medical website WebMD notes some factors that may hinder healing from grief as well as those that may help resolve it. Factors that may hinder grief include substance abuse, overwork and avoiding and minimizing feelings. Factors that may help resolve it include expressing feelings openly to a trusted friend, journaling, acknowledging both positive and negative emotions, participating in bereavement support groups and seeking professional help if needed.

When unresolved grief leads to addiction, professional help is needed in dealing with both issues. It is best to deal with them together under the care of clinicians who understand how they interrelate. If you are looking for that type of treatment, we can help you find it. Call our toll-free helpline, available 24 hours a day, and let us answer your questions. We can help you identify your treatment options and find the one that is best for you. We can also check your insurance coverage for you if you wish, at no cost or obligation. Call now. Your new life is waiting.

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