Learn about the relationship between grief and addiction, including how substance use affects grief, how grief can lead to addiction and how to treat co-occurring grief and substance use disorders.

Grief can be an unspoken bond between people who are in treatment for substance use disorders. People have often suffered many losses by the time they enter recovery. Drug and alcohol addictions can devastate relationships, careers and even a person’s sense of identity. Losing a loved one compounds these other losses, especially when substance use delays the expression of grief.

Some people start using substances for the first time to cope with a loss. Other people suffer losses in the course of addiction. Emotional numbing and other effects of substances can block the grief process and prevent people from resolving a loss. Unresolved grief can develop into complicated grief disorder, a psychological condition with many risks.

The combined effects of unresolved grief and substance abuse can freeze a person’s emotional life and cause them to become depressed. To heal, people have to connect with and express their feelings, find meaning in what they have endured and rebuild a sense of hope. Fortunately, the right grief treatment program can help people grieve their losses and heal.

Effects of Drug Use on Grief

People often respond to loss with an initial period of shock or denial, then a period of sadness. As they accept the reality of the loss, people start to work through the emotional pain of grief, eventually resolving and coming to terms with the loss. The grieving process is complete when a person finds a way to preserve a sense of connection with the person who has died while moving forward in life with plans that do not involve them.

Grief researchers call the middle phase of grief in which people feel intense sadness the acute phase of grief. The length of this phase can vary, but it usually ends within six months to a year. People with complicated grief disorder remain locked in this phase for much longer. In addition to the pain of grief they already feel, they can develop other serious symptoms like obsessive thinking, depressed mood and even a desire to die.

When people use drugs for grief relief, they often end up trading temporary peace for long-term suffering. Using substances can cause unresolved or complicated grief that can persist for years, locking people in a cycle of grief and addiction.

Alcoholism and Grief

Many people turn to alcohol to cope after a loss. For some, the period of combined grief and alcohol abuse is short-lived. For others who are in grief, alcohol abuse continues to escalate over time. When people drink to soften, avoid or suppress feelings of grief alcoholism can develop and become quite severe.

Does alcohol make grief worse? While drinking does not always delay or complicate the grieving process, it often does. Grief does not resolve if it is not felt and expressed. Failing to complete the grieving process can cause cumulative grief, in which each new loss releases emotions linked to the losses that came before it. This can make the grief for each new loss increasingly painful.

Chronic, delayed and cumulative grief are risk factors for complicated grief disorder, which resembles, and can sometimes also cause, a major depressive episode. These co-occurring conditions increase the risk of hospitalization and suicide, especially when a person uses substances while symptoms are present.

Related Topic: Complicated grief treatment

Grief and Marijuana

Like alcohol, marijuana has a sedative and calming effect that people sometimes use to soothe physical or emotional pain. Unfortunately, the immediate relief marijuana provides can make negative moods worse in the long-term. Using marijuana reduces short-term levels of anxiety and depression but exacerbates symptoms over time. This is especially true for people who use marijuana heavily. Marijuana and grief can combine to prolong and delay the emotional work required to move out of the acute grief phase.

Grief and Stimulants

Many people associate stimulant drugs like cocaine, methamphetamines and prescription amphetamines like Adderall with extroverted, energetic behavior and bursts of productivity. However, many people use stimulants to numb emotional pain. Unfortunately, mixing grief and stimulants increases the risk of addiction as well as the risks of complicated grief disorder and long-term depression. One of the most common stimulant withdrawal effects is depressed mood, which can linger and intensify over time.

Statistics on Grief and Addiction

Grief and substance abuse statistics show that there is a significant overlap between major depressive disorder, complicated grief and substance use disorders. One study showed that men were twice as likely to have an alcohol use disorder two years after a loss than men who were not grieving. Another study showed that men and women who had complicated grief and major depressive disorder were more likely than others to meet criteria for alcohol dependence at some point in their lives.

This connection may be due to the effects of substance use on the brain or the high rates of trauma among people who develop substance use disorders. Exposure to trauma, whether in childhood or later in life, significantly increases the risk of complicated grief disorder as well.

Can Grief Lead to Drug Addiction?

Grief and addiction are so deeply linked that grief work is often a significant part of recovery from substance use disorders. For many people, a loss they could not accept set them on the path to addiction.

The risk of developing a substance use disorder is even greater when a loss was traumatic or occurred under traumatic circumstances. For example, people who lose a parent to an act of violence often do not receive the support they would need to mourn and make sense of that loss. They live with unresolved pain that they may try to soothe by using substances.

As people continue to use substances to numb or alleviate grief, they often accumulate other losses. They may lose friends to overdose, lose relationships or lose dreams for their future as they struggle with the impact of addiction on their careers and finances. As the losses continue to build, substance use can intensify even further.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment: Grief and Substance Abuse

Because of the special relationship between substance use and loss, many substance abuse treatment programs already incorporate dual-diagnosis interventions for grief and addiction recovery. People often spend time in treatment groups examining and coming to terms with the losses they have suffered. Sometimes, group sessions are dedicated entirely to the topic of grief and loss.

Individual addictions counselors often focus their work with clients on addressing unresolved grief. A grief treatment plan usually incorporates one of the processes or stage models of grief and includes progressive goals to help people progress from one stage to the next. First, a person must accept a loss, then express emotions related to it. To complete the grief process, they must find meaning in what happened and incorporate it into their personal narrative.

People who have substance use disorders and co-occurring complicated grief disorder or major depressive disorder usually require additional interventions. Many substance abuse treatment programs offer integrated treatment that allows people to address dually diagnosed disorders within the same program.

In an integrated program, a person can often participate in individual mental health therapy, medication management with a psychiatrist, group treatment for substance use disorders and complementary therapies. This approach ensures that people receive the help they need so mental health conditions don’t prevent progress in recovery from a substance use disorder, and vice versa.

If you are struggling with a substance use disorder and also need help addressing grief, depression or other mental health issues, there is help. The Recovery Village operates integrated treatment facilities across the United States that can treat dually diagnosed disorders. Please contact The Recovery Village to learn more about these programs and how treatment can help you overcome the cycle of addiction and grief.

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Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Stephanie Hairston, MSW
Stephanie Hairston received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and English from Pomona College and her Master of Social Work degree from New York University. Read more

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.