Asana Recovery

Unresolved Grief and Substance Abuse — What’s the Relationship?

grief and substance abuse

We all experience stress in our daily lives, but there are certain life events that can challenge us all. The death of a loved one or loss of something meaningful can lead to grief, which is a normal and inevitable part of life. Everyone has their own preferences and ways to cope with grief and face life’s challenges, but for those struggling with addiction, it can be particularly difficult. If a person is in active addiction when they suffer the loss, it may delay their ability to process and resolve their grief. Unresolved grief and substance abuse can complicate a person’s mental and emotional state thus making it more difficult to achieve sustained recovery.

What is Grief?

Grief is a common experience and for most people, it is characterized by a period of sadness and distress that gradually decreases as a person accepts their loss and learns to move on. This process is different for every person but some common symptoms of grief include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sadness
  • Crying 
  • Numbness
  • Difficulty sleeping or disrupted sleep patterns
  • Changes to appetite and eating habits

The symptoms of grief can resemble those of depression, however the grieving process is a normal part of coping with a loss. Over time, a person’s grief symptoms generally decrease and subside as they process their emotions and feelings. When they have accepted their loss, they are able to return to normal life activities, even as they continue to recover from their loss. This is not the same as forgetting, instead it is a process to return to normal living without feeling the immense pain that characterized the immediate period following loss.

For some people, instead of moving through the grief process, they do not reach a point of acceptance and their grief is sustained for a much longer period of time. This grief is usually much more severe and intense in nature and does not improve with time. In some cases the grief can worsen and interfere with the person’s ability to function in their daily activities. This grief can be labelled as unresolved grief.

What is Unresolved Grief and How is it Different From Grief?

Unresolved grief is sometimes difficult to differentiate from the normal grieving process, however, some common symptoms of unresolved grief include:

  • Severe sadness that does not improve over time
  • Positive memories become painful memories for the individual
  • Complete avoidance of acknowledging the loss
  • Unwillingness to talk about the loss
  • Obsessing over the loss in such a way that the person is consumed with the preoccupation
  • Social isolation
  • Avoiding things that once made them happy (lack of interest) or becoming overactive with a hobby or work
  • Self destructive behavior, especially drug or alcohol abuse
  • Risky behavior
  • Self blame, excessive guilt
  • Prolonged numbness, fatigue and emptiness
  • Suicidal thoughts

Unresolved Grief and Substance Abuse

Some people may start using substances or alcohol for the first time in order to deal with a loss. In other cases, people in active addiction can experience losses and continue to use drugs or alcohol to dull their pain and emotions. As a result of this emotional numbing, the grief process is blocked leading to additional psychological risks and continued substance use as a coping mechanism. When people use substances as a coping mechanism they can prolong their unresolved grief creating a vicious cycle of grief and addiction. Grief needs to be felt and expressed in order to be resolved; unfortunately both drugs and alcohol delay or complicate that process because they allow a person to avoid and suppress the emotions.

Grief and addiction are closely intertwined and can also be compounded with depression. While either can happen first, it is important that those who have unresolved grief and substance abuse issues resolve both conditions through a dual diagnosis program. An early part of most treatment will be to examine the different losses that a person has suffered and find healthy ways to process the grief and emotion surrounding a loss. A grief treatment plan might be helpful in helping a person progress through the different stages of grief without the use of substances to manage the pain. Because of the complexity of grief and addiction, a person might need to process their loss and pain before they are able to progress in their long term recovery.

Addiction Treatment in California


If you or someone you care about has a problem with unresolved grief and substance abuse, Asana Recovery can help. Contact Asana Recovery or give us a call today at 949-763-3440. Our trained professionals will walk you through the admissions process and make sure all of your questions are answered. The first step is admitting you need help, and is often the hardest. Once you take that first step, there will be a team on your side to help you be successful in your new future.

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