While it is a natural, healthy and inevitable emotional response, grief after the loss of a loved one can be devastating. This response to a death or other painful life occurrence, such as divorce, has several primary and recognizable qualities. Sufferers from grief will experience sadness and despair, difficulty concentrating, tiredness and fatigue, loss of appetite, frequent crying, sleeplessness as well as a mix of happy and sad memories and often feelings of guilt. These feelings can persist over long periods of time which vary significantly from individual to individual. With grief, there is no “normal” limit to the amount of time you may experience these feelings.
Grief after a major personal loss closely resembles and mimics a major depressive disorder which is a serious, clinically-diagnosed mental health condition recognized and defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. A major depressive disorder includes many features, most notable of which are despair, guilt, powerlessness and helplessness, extreme fatigue, irritability, and loss of interest in enjoyed activities.
This condition differs from grief in a few key ways. For example, if you suffer from depression, you will also likely have low self-esteem, feeling of worthlessness and even suicidal thoughts. If you have mild depression, however, an episode of grief can increase your symptoms of depression and even bring on major depression. In either case, you face a very high likelihood of relying on drugs and alcohol to relieve some of the sadness, stress and painful symptoms.
Substance use can seem like a convenient way to relieve momentary stress, but it can have serious consequences if you use it to self-medicate your grief or signs of depression. Alcohol in particular functions as a depressant. While drinking may help numb some of the painful feelings you have during this time, it can also increase your grief and depression. Extended grief can also evolve into major depression if it does not resolve on its own and you do not seek professional treatment. Unaddressed grief can thus bring on major emotional, psychological and physical problems, even in the absence of substance abuse or other mental health problems.
SYMPTOMS OF GRIEF
Grief has many observable signs and symptoms many of which can be long-lasting. Major indicators of grief include:
- crying and sighing
- loss of appetite
- difficulty sleeping
- feelings of heaviness
- aches and pains
- sadness and longing
- worry and anxiety
- feelings of detachment
- social isolation
- erratic or out-of-character behavior
- questioning of the loss, the pain and suffering, the purpose of life or the meaning of loss
- major changes in how you view the loss
Grief is a natural and healthy response to a loss, and seeking to avoid or repress grief will often lead to even more negative symptoms and serious issues. However, if you experience grief for a long time, if you have severe negative symptoms, or if it begins to interfere with your relationships and job performance, or if you notice signs of other illnesses including increased substance use, you will need professional help. The symptoms of severe grief and substance abuse, however, are treatable, and an individualized approach to recovery can protect your emotional, psychological and physical health while you work on getting healthy again.
WHY TREATING GRIEF AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE IS CHALLENGING
Grief encompasses a wide range of emotions, memories and experiences that can often extend back years depending on the length of your and your loved one’s relationship. Relationships such as these can deeply affect who we are and how we view ourselves, and the loss of a person like this from our lives can be extremely difficult to deal with, even if you do not have a pattern of substance abuse.
When you add substance abuse to your grieving process, you will intensify and extend it, and also mask many of the issues you must face to pass through the most difficult stage of your grief, the time closest to your loss. Substance use during this time, especially if you drink, significantly increases the chances of turning your grief into a major depressive episode. If this occurs, this condition, in addition to your grief and drug use, makes the problem one you will no longer be able to address on your own. However, each of these conditions is treatable and can be managed if you seek professional addiction and mental health support.
HOW A HOLISTIC APPROACH TO RECOVERY CAN HELP YOU OVERCOME YOUR GRIEF AND ADDICTION
You will not be able to overcome your grief or other mental health symptoms if you are still using drugs and alcohol as a means of self-medication. Drugs and alcohol will always increase your other negative symptoms, add new negative symptoms, delay an accurate diagnosis and treatment or undermine behavioral treatment you do receive. A compassionate and individualized approach to detox helps you end your chemical dependency by removing all traces of drugs from your body and stopping drug cravings by focusing on risk factors specific to your personality, style of use and social factors.
This same approach will help you overcome the debilitating aspects of your grief and any other mental health symptoms which may be troubling you. By focusing on specifics, you can begin to understand why the grief has remained or intensified and start to address the underlying feelings or needs which have prolonged it in your case. Once you have identified the real reasons for the problem, you can learn techniques and methods to deal with those facets in ways that honor your relationship with your loved about also allow you to preserve your health and grow from the experience.
It is possible for you to grieve in a healthy way without drugs or alcohol and without suffering from additional problems by either denying your grief or allowing it to take over your life. The Serenity Oaks Wellness Center wants to help you survive and even thrive in the most difficult circumstances. We understand the pain, difficulty and sadness of losing a loved one or suffer a major change in your life, but you deserve peace and wholeness no matter what your external circumstances may be. We are here to help you get through this. You deserve it.