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Unresolved Grief and Addiction: Break Free from the Pain

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Sadness, loss, pain, and grief—they are parts of life. Everyone experiences these at some point in their lives to one degree or another. Grief can occur for various reasons and people experience grief differently from one another. For some, moving through the stages of grief simply doesn’t happen and they get stuck in unresolved or unhealed grief. When this happens, mental health disorders, including addictions, can be exacerbated. However, no one has to remain in this place of sadness. Therapy for grief and loss can be very effective.

When it comes to grief, most of us think of the death of a loved one, family member, or friend. And while this is often the cause of deep grief, grief can also come from other losses in a person’s life. Here are some causes of grief:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Loss of a job
  • Divorce or separation
  • Divorce of one’s parents
  • Loss of a pet
  • Loss of a friendship
  • Loss of a relationship
  • Experience of physical or emotional trauma or abuse
  • Moving to a new place
  • Watching someone you love suffer
  • National or global tragedies

When someone is grieving, they feel the loss of the familiar acutely. Grief is when one of your parents has passed on and you reach for the phone to call them then realize they’re gone. Grief can be when you move to a new city and have left behind all that is familiar; family, friends, your favorite coffee shops, favorite restaurants, job, and more. Grief can also be experienced when you’ve been friends with someone and close to them for some time and the friendship ends. Grief is the loss of what is loved, familiar, and oftentimes safe. 

Generally, people experience grief and move through the stages of grief. Some may take longer than others but most people make progress and are eventually able to move on and get back to a more normal life. But this isn’t always the case. For some, they are unable to move through these stages of grief and remain stuck in grief. In general, there are considered to be five or seven stages of grief. Here are the five stages of grief as described by Swiss-American psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression 
  5. Acceptance

There are also grief models with seven stages of grief which include the following:

  1. Shock and denial
  2. Pain and guilt
  3. Anger and bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Upward turn
  6. Reconstruction and working through
  7. Acceptance and hope

When an individual gets stuck in one of these stages or doesn’t progress past the first, unresolved grief can set in and life can become bleak and hopeless. 

Here are some signs that an individual is experiencing grief: 

  • Increase or onset of roller coaster of emotions
  • Change in eating habits and appetite; eating too much or not being able to eat much
  • Decrease in the ability to concentrate or focus
  • Increase in feelings of numbness
  • Increase in or onset of sleep issues such as insomnia

While many of the symptoms of grief may look like depression it’s important to realize that while depression can be part of grief they aren’t the same thing. Grief is grief. During the normal grieving process, most people go through deep sadness and eventually get to the final stage of grief, acceptance. 

As time goes on the deep feelings of emptiness and loss lift and life starts to feel okay again. However, those living with unresolved or complex grief do not experience this. Rather they remain in the painful stages of grief and without the right help, this can last for years. To escape this pain, some may reach for alcohol or drugs and others may begin to increase their consumption of either or both. 

What is Unresolved Grief? 

Unresolved grief is also called complex grief. It is different from regular grief in several ways. One way is that it lasts much longer than normal grief. In addition, it is also more severe and intense. Often, in the normal grieving process, these intense emotions decrease over time, with complex or unresolved grief these intensely painful feelings can do just the opposite and increase over time. As others are healing, the person with complex grief is spiraling further down—often unnoticed by others. Another difference is that when it comes to unresolved grief, daily life and functioning can be hindered. 

This is often when addictions are exacerbated or begin. For some, unresolved grief takes their unhealthy relationship with alcohol or drugs to a whole new and much more dangerous level. 

Why does one person get stuck in unresolved guilt but not the next? While there are some factors that have been shown to be connected to unresolved grief, there are no definites. Here are some of the reasons a person may experience complex or unresolved grief:

  • Feel guilty about the loss
  • Have unresolved feelings about the person or situation lost
  • Suffer from low self-esteem
  • Experiencing an unexpected or sudden death of a loved one
  • Experiencing a violent death of a loved one 
  • Living with a lot of stress
  • Lacking healthy social supports
  • Being the caregiver of the person who passed away

As mentioned, there are no hard and fast rules determining who will and who will not experience unresolved grief. However, these are some factors that can make it more likely to happen. 

Signs of Unresolved Grief

Initially, it can be difficult to determine if an individual is progressing through the stages of grief or if they are beginning to get stuck in unresolved grief. Here are some signs that are commonly associated with unresolved grief: 

  • Having anger issues and irritability
  • Missing and ongoing obsession with the person or situation gone
  • Experiencing extreme fear of loss or hyperalertness about possible losses
  • Changes in behaviors in personal relationships
  • Engaging in addictive, harmful behaviors
  • Experiencing apathy or low-level depression
  • Living with intense sadness that doesn’t improve
  • Avoiding being close with others
  • Avoiding anything that reminds them of the person or loss
  • Refusing to speak about the person or loss
  • Isolating from others
  • Feeling guilty or blaming oneself
  • Thinking of suicide

Children and teenagers may exhibit these behaviors however unresolved grief in these younger groups can manifest in other ways to be looked for too. Some of these are:

  • Engaging in delinquent or risky behaviors
  • Being angry or hostile towards anyone connected to the person deceased or the death
  • Detaching from friends, work, school, etc.
  • Fearing being alone particularly at night
  • Lacking trust in others

Grief, particularly unresolved grief can look different from one person to the next. Being aware of some of these signs may help to avoid overlooking some important red flags. 

Sometimes a person may begin counseling for anger issues or go to anger management classes only to find they actually have unresolved grief which is fueling the anger. Other times an individual may go to rehab for an alcohol problem only to discover they have been burying unresolved grief under the booze. However, what all of these situations have in common is that grief counseling does work and anyone with complex or unresolved grief can heal and move on. 

While research on unresolved or complex grief is in its infancy, data shows that about 10-20% of people who experience a loss will also experience complex grief or persistent complex bereavement disorder as named in the DSM-V. But no matter the cause, healing is possible. This is true even when other disorders such as an alcohol use disorder (AUD) or substance use disorder (SUD) has taken hold or become substantially worse. 

Complex Grief and Addiction 

When it comes to complex grief and addiction many people are unaware that both exist. They may think that alcohol is their issue or they may think that they are still just sad over the significant loss they experienced and they need just a little more of their drug of choice to get through. They may tell themselves they’ll cut down or stop soon. 

But as so many in addiction know firsthand, cutting down or stopping, once an addiction has begun, is nearly impossible to do. At least on your own. 

If you are living with complex or unresolved grief and also think you may have developed a dependency on alcohol or drugs, there is help and there is hope. And—you are not alone. Millions of people have complex grief and addiction. Many of these individuals have been able to heal from both. You can too. It doesn’t matter which came first, the addiction or the complex grief. The key is to get the right treatment for both at the same time. Finding an addiction treatment center that treats co-occurring disorders is vital. Research shows that when a person with co-occurring disorders gets help for both at the same time their chances of long-term recovery increase. 

Life and grief can be very painful. But the grief doesn’t have to last forever. If you or a loved one are experiencing an extended period of grief, you may have complex or unresolved grief. If you are using alcohol or another substance to help you cope, you may be developing or have developed an addiction. No matter what your circumstances, the right treatment program can help. 

Futures Recovery Healthcare specializes in treating adults with co-occurring mental health and substance or alcohol use disorders. Reach out to learn more about how Futures can help you heal from addiction and grief. Contact us today! 866-804-2098

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