Call now in confidence immediate help & advice 24/7

0800 088 66 86

International: +44 330 333 6197

Understanding Grief And Addiction

Posted on May 22, 2020

Understanding Grief And Addiction

Grief is a difficult emotion to process for everyone. It is a deeper response to loss and pain than sadness. Loss can include the death of a loved one or family member, or even the loss of a job, pet, or home. But what do we know about grief and addiction?

Everyone can handle grief differently. Some will bounce back given a little time, but others may fall into a depressive state feeling lost and uncertain of how to move forward. People who are grieving need the support of others during this time, as they are emotionally vulnerable.

Without help, those who are grieving can turn to external stimuli to satisfy the hurt they feel inside. This form of escapism can be detrimental, however, as it can lead to addictive behaviour down the road.

What is grief and is it just related to death?

Grief can be defined as:

  1. “deep mental anguish, as that arising from bereavement;
  2. a source or cause of deep mental anguish

It is a powerful response to the loss of someone or something extremely meaningful to the griever. The cause may be the passing of a relative or friends, but it can also be the loss of employment, friendship or relationship, even someone becoming seriously ill.

How grief turns into addiction

A study conducted in 2019 examined a very interesting link between grief and addiction. The scientists, Dr Chambers MD. and Dr Wallingford MA, LPC, ATR, studied the physiological similarities between interpersonal attachment and drug addiction. They found the addiction recovery process to be akin to grieving in those suffering from substance abuse. [1]

These similarities result as misuser forms an attachment or bond with the drug, much like a person may be attached to a loved one. In this way, a grieving individual may turn to drugs seeking attachment to anything to fill in the emptiness felt by the loss of someone close.

Normally, the Nucleus Accumbens (NAC) is the brain region responsible for motivating human bonding behaviours for our survival. However, drugs can high-jack this region into forming a bond with the pharmaceutical rush.

Grieving people, who have usually lost their main human attachment, could substitute the bond with a substance without their brains knowing the difference.

Grief symptoms are strenuous to experience alone. Many grievers may have family and friends to assist with the healing process, but modern society is very harsh towards those who are grieving anyways.

What does the research say?

From the WebMD study, over half of the participants (53%) felt that others expected their grieving periods to be over soon, at the most within a year. [2] This rush to get through with grieving based on others’ expectations forces people to repress their grief. Therefore it remains gnawing at them, unresolved and festering in the back of the mind.

For those who cannot consciously push tier grief away, drugs may numb the pain enough to get through a day. Yet, the more they use the drug, the more tolerant their brains become to the chemicals. More drugs are needed to apply an effect and an addiction forms. This can be caused by unsettled grief.

The same falls in line for those who are grieving and looking to substitute their lost bond with something else. These people usually have inherited poor coping mechanisms.

Instead of seeking the support of trusted friends and family or professional help, they may turn to narcotics to drive the depression away. However, this does little to work out the pain they feel and they slowly become despondent on drugs for a sense of normality.

The relationship between loss and addiction

Chambers and Wallingfored make note of the parallels between falling in love with a person and becoming addicted to a drug. In both cases the NAC motivates our behaviour to seek out more of the person or dug.

When we experience a loss of our attachment, the NAC motivates our behaviour to desperately seek out a reconnection to that person or drug.

As someone experiencing grief can no longer reconnect with what they have lost, they can only seek to recreate the emotions they felt in the original bond or numb the pain of loss. They may succumb to the temptation to drink the emotions down and develop a dependency on alcohol to do so.

In this way, they develop another bond, this time with a substance, and the NAC pushes their behaviour to continue pursuing this bond.

Symptoms of grief

A study held by WebMD in May 2019 of grieving participants found that 88% reported having some type of emotional symptoms, while 68% had physical symptoms. [3] Grief can affect people differently. Some common physical and emotional symptoms.


  • Exhaustion
  • Headaches
  • Indigestion
  • Insomnia
  • Lack of energy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle tightness or weakness
  • Nausea
  • Pressure in chest
  • Sleeping too much
  • Stomach aches
  • Tightness or heaviness in throat
  • Weight gain or loss


  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Forgetfulness
  • Guilt
  • Indecisiveness
  • Initial shock at the discovery
  • Mental fog
  • Numbness
  • Sadness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Worry
  • Yearning [4]

Loss of the addiction itself in substance abuse recovery

Partners of someone with an addiction may wonder – how is it that their significant other misuses substances despite their lives suffering die to that behaviour. What it comes to actually ridding an addiction, we can think from another perspective.

People who suffer from misusing drugs continue to use drugs because of the luxury they feel it offers. Sure, they receive a specific high from a drug., but it comes so easily and quickly, they develop a dependency on it to function. They never learn to cope with those tough emotions in real life.

They may have a ritual surrounding its usage. When habits become deeply ingrained with beliefs, it is that much harder to quit them.

Removing oneself from that lifestyle also means changing one’s social circle. A person suffering from substance abuse has to let go of relationships that encourage undesirable behaviour. It is possible these relationships formed due to motivational impulses from the NAC.

Grief and alcohol addiction

A national survey in Hungary found that men in bereavement are more likely to turn to alcoholism within two years over men who were not. [5] When things seem dark, it can feel tempting to want to lighten the mood with a few drinks.

Addiction comes in when the person cannot go through the day without another dose. This can be helped with the love and support of trusted people. If you honestly think someone is suffering from alcoholism, consider gathering with their friends and staging an intervention.

Grief and drug addiction

Alcohol is one problem, but people form attachments to dangerous substances. Some drugs like marijuana are socially accepted because of a more pleasant high. Others can submit a person to a life of dependency on drugs.

Crystal meth has ruined the lives of many people, destroying their appearance their mental health, and their wallets. Cocaine is another highly addictive drugs that can cause severe health issues.

The withdrawal periods also costly when you consider the medical bills. If you know someone who has symptoms of drug issues, offering your support to quit could be the push they need to overcome addiction.

What are the 5 stages of grief when someone is addicted?

As much as substance misusers commit the habit, their loved ones may enable or allow it. Living with a suffering family member can feel unreal for their relatives. This can create a dissonance where the misuser’s behaviour is excused or neglected to maintain their bonds and function.

This situation wrecks their relatives emotionally much like grief. There are five stages of grief living with an addiction:

1. Denial

Relatives can make excuses for the misuser’s behaviour. They may also neglect to hold that person accountable for their actions.

2. Anger

The truth is often hard to bear. When reality sets in that a relative has an addiction, many react with anger. They become irritable and volatile like a walking time bomb.

3. Bargaining

When we feel powerless in a situation, we want to feel in control again. We experience this when we try to imagine “”what if”” and “”should have”” situations. Instead of dealing with the current situation, we try bargaining with the possibilities of something already done.

4. Depression

When reality finally sinks in, the grief can give way to depression. At this point, the person feels they have let their family member down. The person you knew before is no longer there.

5. Acceptance

The person learns to move forward in life by accepting the reality of the situation and living on their own terms

Difference between grief and depression

Grief is a coping mechanism whereby people process the loss of someone (or something) significant. It can feel as powerful as the bond was initially. While it can manifest as sadness, grief is different from depression, which is usually characterized by feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness.

Complicated grief – an understanding and treatment

Complicated grief is not foreign to health care professionals. when participating in up to 19 weeks of complicated grief treatment, patients showed higher rates of recovery than those who received interpersonal psychotherapy treatment. [6]

How can I cope with grief and death in recovery?

Addiction is hard to deal with, but it never has to be done alone. remember your support network who will always back you up. You can receive abundant assistance in identifying and processing your emotions.

Spirituality and religion can help people cope with grief. Meditation and prayer offer a morale boost at best during stressful periods. It may also answer many questions for the individual. Listening to positive people and reading self-help books are more ways to make sense of things.

Planning ahead for grief triggers

The effects of grief can cause upsets for years. Even harder are the times when memories re-trigger feelings of grief in us. Photos, trinkets, voicemails, holidays – anything can spark a rush of grievance at inappropriate times.

If a person knows when they are likely to experience an emotional trigger, they can plan accordingly by scheduling a consultation or talking with loved ones.

What can I do to avoid relapse while grieving?

If you feel you may lose control and relapse into substance abuse, tell a loved one or someone you trust immediately. Even one mistake can restart the addiction. Help can be waiting from many angles.

Joining a bereavement group puts you in touch with your peers. Talking with family and friends can help you process things emotionally. Finally deciding to face the emotions head-on is the best way to handle things maturely.

Holistic healing for grief and addiction

People with an addiction who are suffering from grief require a different approach to healing. Medical professions have to monitor both their addictive behaviour and their emotional well being. Working with them requires a more full-bodied approach to tailor to people’s specific needs.

Grieving a death from addiction

If you have suffered a lot due to addiction, talk with your family about it. grieving is a difficult process, but a necessary one. We have to experience the emotion in order to properly digest the loss of an important bond.

Letting it happen is a healthy, normal thing to do. Those overwhelming moments can be tempered by talking with therapists or those close to us whom we confide in. That’s why it is important to remember that we are never alone in our grieving.

Looking for more advice?

At Rehab Recovery, we provide rehab & detox treatments specialised to every individual’s needs.

Find out more by calling us today on 0800 088 66 86.








Other Recent Articles

Subscribe to our newsletter