Alcohol Abuse While Grieving: What Happens & How to Deal

Updated

Rationalizing drinking alcohol after the death of a loved one or another type of significant loss can help some people get needed relief from their grief. They use alcohol to mask their grief because they find it challenging to deal with their emotional pain and suffering following a tragedy. 

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Because everyone deals with loss differently, people experiencing adverse grief reactions such as anger and depression may turn to alcohol to numb their feelings and emotions to lessen the pain. 

However, what starts as a temporary fix to easing grief-related suffering can quickly turn into a habit that turns into an obsession. Alcohol abuse turns into addiction when a person forms a higher level of tolerance, needing to drink more and more to gain the same numbing effects as when they first started drinking. The tolerance then becomes a dependence that’s difficult to break free of.

Why Do Some Grieving People Turn to Alcohol While Grieving?

The death of a loved one is an often harrowing experience that's difficult to reconcile and make sense of. The effects of traumatic loss and unresolved grief often give rise to alcohol abuse in some individuals who have trouble coming to terms with their suffering. 

There are many different types of grieving styles that affect bereaved persons. Some will experience the various stages of grief during their healing journey, including shock, disbelief, and anger. Not knowing how to deal with these emotional ebbs and flows is shared among the newly bereaved. 

Individuals suffering through a tragic loss sometimes turn to alcohol to numb their sadness and alleviate the pain of suffering because it's easier than trying to understand what they're going through. These changes in behaviors among loss survivors result in high levels of grief avoidance and depression, especially among those who are risk-averse in resolving their grief. 

As a result, alcoholism routinely manifests in grieving people who may already have an underlying condition contributing to their grief. Not everyone will turn to alcohol when suffering through loss, but those stuck in their grief are more prone to developing an addiction to it if not managed early on.

How Does Alcohol Abuse Affect the Grieving Process?

Traumatic loss and unresolved grief often give rise to alcohol abuse in certain individuals who are susceptible to this condition. When grieving individuals drown out their sorrow with alcohol, they effectively mask their grief by numbing away their feelings. 

A person who isn’t in touch with the reality of their suffering prolongs the grief process by not allowing themselves to feel the pain and deal with the consequences of their grief. Prolonged grief often turns into complicated grief that’s even more challenging to recover from than ordinary grief. 

Examples of Alcohol Abuse While Grieving

Excessive drinking to deal with the pain and sadness of a significant loss is one of the most common examples of a bereaved person abusing alcohol. Some grieving parents or siblings who lost a close family member might turn to alcohol to help them get through each day when their suffering becomes too great to handle. Depression and hopelessness following this type of loss are other contributing factors to alcohol abuse among survivors. 

Grief reactions such as guilt and yearning for the deceased may also contribute to excessive drinking while grieving. A person who thinks that their behavior contributed to their loved one’s death, such as in an auto accident where the survivor was driving, will often result in alcohol abuse to numb the pain and drown out excessive ruminations about how the death occurred.

Survivors of this type of loss might want to drown out the reality of their loss, so they don’t have to deal with the replaying in their head of their loved one’s death that they blame themselves. 

How to Get Help If You’re Abusing Alcohol and Grieving

Getting the help you need for your alcohol abuse can be one of the most difficult things you can force yourself to do. Admitting you have a problem is the first and hardest step. Expect feelings of failure and shame to sway your decision to come forward about your drinking if you’ve hidden it from your friends and family. 

If others know that you have a problem, your ego can suffer from admitting defeat. In any case, knowing you need the support of your loved ones to conquer this phase of grieving may not be as challenging to accept as it seems. 

Admit to your abuse

Medical literature lists alcohol abuse as a condition that needs treatment rather than a behavior requiring punishment. Many grieving individuals easily hide their alcohol abuse, especially older adults who drink alone in the privacy of their homes. The first step in getting help with your drinking is to admit that you have a problem without using euphemisms to soften the truth. 

People tend to avoid the reality of their situation by cushioning the impact of the real meaning of the words “alcoholic” or “alcoholism,” as in when they say someone’s “passed on” rather than saying they’ve died. A person who drinks excessively might refer to themselves as having a “drinking problem” or being “sobriety deprived.” When you admit to the truth, getting the specific help you need becomes easier.

Recognize your vulnerability

Whether you’ve never before touched alcohol in your life or if you’re a recovering alcoholic, recognizing your breaking point is crucial to maintaining your sobriety as you grapple with loss. 

Reach out to your closest friends and loved ones and ask for their support. They may not completely understand your pain and suffering, and you don’t owe them a detailed explanation of what you’re dealing with internally. But surrounding yourself with the presence of people who love and care about you will help you to steer away from self-destructive behaviors. 

Free or Low-Cost Resources to Help With Alcohol Abuse and Grief

If you’re struggling with remaining sober, there are many free or low-cost resources available in person or online to help you get through the most challenging aspects of grief. Consider your first stop in your search on the internet. You can find access to online grief support groups and national organizations aimed at helping individuals become sober. Here are a few to consider. 

Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.)

A.A. is a community-based, 12-step program for treating alcoholism and continued management of sobriety, offering daily meetings to discuss addiction and provide added support when recovering from alcohol abuse. 

The main goal of A.A. is to have its members learn to manage their alcoholism rather than control it. Membership is donation-based, and members aren't required to contribute or pay any fees. Additionally, A.A. welcomes anyone to attend, making the process easy by not requiring member registration or appointments. Anyone can show up at any scheduled meeting and as many times as they need to get added support in managing their drinking. 

T.A.P.S.

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors helps bereaved individuals struggling with the loss of a military member by providing counseling and bereavement services free of charge. They offer free access to online resources and grief communities, in addition to in-person seminars to help you survive through loss. 

This non-profit organization will not turn you away if your loss is not related to a service-connected death or tragedy. They have grief counselors and other resources spread throughout the nation ready to help grieving individuals get through the most challenging parts of their grief journey. 

SMART Recovery

The SMART Recovery program for addiction focuses on helping individuals overcome several types of addiction, including alcoholism. It is a free, nationwide recovery program that has online and in-person support groups offering a four-point recovery process that aims at:

  1. Building and maintaining the motivation to change
  2. Coping with urges to use
  3. Managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors 
  4. Living a balanced, positive, healthy life

How to Talk to a Loved One Who’s Abusing Alcohol and Grieving

Understanding how bereaved people experience and resolve their grief is one of the first steps in supporting someone who’s suffering from alcohol abuse. Grief manifests in several stages that accompany a person's individual and varied responses to loss. A bereaved person suffers emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual reactions to a traumatic experience. The following tips aim to help you connect with a loved one who's turned to alcohol during their grieving. 

Let your loved one unpack their trauma

Helping identify your loved one’s losses below the surface is essential for them to understand what caused them to turn to alcohol. Grief is a complex human reaction to loss that may take years and the peeling away of layers to figure out where past traumas lie. 

Your loved one may be holding on to the pain from losses or abuse suffered many years ago, and past pain might resurface due to the current loss that triggers these hidden emotions. Grieving persons may not be aware of why they’re reacting so adversely to their recent loss until they get to unpacking their past. 

Don’t play the blame game

Grief-induced alcohol abuse isn’t an issue that needs fixing, similar to a broken bone or another type of accidental trauma. Alcohol abuse stemming from grief is a condition that benefits from proper treatment, including grief support, counseling, and therapy. When the abuse turns to alcoholism, it becomes a disease that’s more difficult to treat. 

Grief reactions following a significant loss range from mild to profoundly devastating, depending on the person’s ability to cope with loss, past experiences, and maturity. Not everyone handles their grief well, even in milder cases where they might suffer from exaggerated grief responses to ordinary loss. 

Gently suggest counseling

Dealing with someone who’s excessively drinking while trying to cope with loss can be intimidating, especially when they’re either verbally or physically abusive toward their loved ones. A person under the influence of alcohol usually has an impaired capacity to think and react normally. They might take extreme offense toward their loved ones trying to help them through their grief. 

Getting them to agree to grief counseling or therapy might help them process their grief more healthily while getting help for their feelings of anger, depression, and hopelessness that usually accompany loss. 

Excessive Drinking When Grieving

Grief-related alcoholism is a complex disease that can affect bereaved persons having difficulty coping with their loss. In many circumstances, alcohol abuse resolves on its own when a person starts to feel better.

Although you can expect a delay in the grieving process because of the masking of emotions, many individuals will eventually recognize their unhealthy ways of dealing with grief. Others still may benefit from professional help with the underlying issues contributing to their alcohol abuse. 

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