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Grief and Addiction

Many people struggling with addiction may also be facing challenges related to grief or bereavement. Grief is a common response to a loss of any kind.1

Using or misusing substances can be a common response to the pain accompanying loss. Understanding the link between grief and addiction and how to seek help may help you or a loved one avoid more severe addiction or substance misuse.2

The Link Between Grief and Addiction

Grief includes the various emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses a person can have because of a loss. When a person is grieving, it can make it harder for them to manage their addiction or cope with the loss.2 In some cases, people may use more drugs or alcohol to help cope with the pain they are experiencing and/or find addiction recovery far more difficult.2

Causes of Grief

When talking about grief or bereavement, it can refer to more than just the death of another person. Other stressful life events that may result in grief include:3, 4, 5

  • Job loss.
  • Divorce.
  • Moving.
  • Retirement or loss of career.
  • Declining health or injury.
  • Abortion.
  • Loss of youth.

People process loss in different ways; however, it’s common for people to feel a sense of emotional stress and loss of motivation, which can make it difficult for people to manage normal daily activities. Some people may try to avoid the painful feelings associated with loss by using substances.6

Expressions of Grief

Grief can take different forms ranging from what’s known as “normal” grief to “complicated grief” and major depression.5 Expressions of grief vary from person to person and may be influenced by factors like:5

  • Attachment style.
  • Genetics.
  • Age.
  • Overall health.
  • Types/number of losses.
  • Spiritual practices.
  • Nature of the relationship to the person they lost.
  • Support network.

Normal, or uncomplicated grief doesn’t have a set time frame or diagnosis; however, people experiencing this type of grief often have a mix of emotional pain with positive memories or even feelings of joy or relief.5 With time, they begin moving out of the acute stages of grief and into more integrated grief. Common signs of acute grief are:5

  • Sadness.
  • Crying.
  • Continuous thoughts about a person or a loss.
  • Disinterest in spending time with people or engaging in regular activities.
  • Difficulty concentrating.

Complicated grief is when a person is unable to transition out of more acute stages of grief.5 They may be struggling to accept the loss leading to distress that lasts beyond 6 months.5 They may also be at higher risk for developing co-occurring conditions like cardiac disease, hypertension, or substance misuse.2, 5 Signs of complicated grief are:5

  • Intense longing for a person.
  • Ongoing distress over being separated from a person or what was lost.
  • Preoccupied with thinking about a person.
  • Anger.
  • Intrusive thoughts about the person or loss.
  • Anxiety.
  • Sadness.
  • Feeling that their lives may be over, and the pain of loss may never go away.

Treatment for Grief and Addiction

If you or a loved one are experiencing more complicated symptoms of grief and/or feel you are misusing substances, treatment may be a helpful option. When looking for grief and addiction treatment, it is important to keep in mind that everyone needs a slightly different type of treatment.7

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there is no single type of treatment that works for everyone. Check that the treatment facility assesses your individual needs and tailors treatment plans to those needs.7

Your individualized treatment plan may include a variety of therapy methods, detox, and other services. For instance, you may attend individual therapy sessions. Depending on your unique needs and substance use, therapy sessions may use evidence-based approaches to help modify behaviors and thoughts about substance use and treatment.8 Common therapies grief and addiction counseling methods include:8

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • Motivational enhancement.
  • Contingency management.
  • Family therapy.

These therapeutic approaches will focus on teaching you how to live without drugs and alcohol, create healthy behavior patterns, and develop coping strategies to deal with grief and addiction.8 You may also learn how to deal with your feelings of grief without numbing with substances.

Mutual support group meetings may also be a part of your treatment plan. In a group setting, you can hear about other people’s stories and may learn about the 12-step approach to recovery.

Treatment for grief and addiction may occur at varying levels of intensity and in settings like inpatient or outpatient facilities. Before entering treatment, you should be assessed by professionals to help choose the appropriate level of care to meet your needs.

Find Support for Grief and Addiction

The grieving process can be very difficult and having support may make a positive difference, particularly if you’re also struggling with addiction. American Addiction Centers (AAC) has drug and alcohol treatment centers across the U.S. to help people like you get the help they need for substance misuse and co-occurring mental health disorders. If you’re ready to learn about treatment, give us a call at to chat with a friendly admissions navigator about your options, insurance coverage, and where to find other grief and addiction resources.