Recovering from the loss of a family member or friend can be as difficult as recovering from alcoholism or drug addiction in some ways. Both experiences can produce similar, complicated responses: denial, guilt, sadness, fear, and anger. For this reason, grief associated with loss can feel even more intense for people already coping with other issues such as addiction or mental health disorders. Because of this, it is important that those in recovery protect their mental health by making self-care a top priority during this turbulent time. Here are the different ways grief can affect people and how to keep emotions in check without stifling feelings and sacrificing overall well-being.
What is grief and how does it impact mental health?
Grief is the despair felt after a sudden loss. It is typically associated with the death of a loved one but can also occur after other major life changes take place, such as losing a job or dealing with a breakup. Grief is a universal, natural experience, but those experiencing the aftermath of a loved one’s death often feel that they are alone in the depths of their sadness. These thoughts can cause a person’s mental health to deteriorate over time and can even provoke mental illness.
Grief is not easy to define because it encompasses a spectrum of emotions, meaning no two people experience grief the same way. Some feel angry. Some feel anxious. Some may feel relieved, especially if their loved one experienced suffering prior to their death. If the death was sudden or the result of unnatural circumstances such as suicide or murder, those left behind may feel especially shaken and find coping more difficult. Factors that impact how a person grieves after a death include:
- The closeness of their relationship to the person who has died
- Their personality and the state of their mental health prior to the death
- The reason for their loved one’s death
- Their familiarity and past experiences with the grieving process
Because of the different factors that influence emotions after a loss, everyone deals with grief differently and at their own pace. Eventually, they should be able to accept the loss and learn to gradually adapt to daily life after this major change.
When does grief turn into mental illness?
Grief does not subside overnight. It is common for loved ones to experience periods of grief years after someone close to them has passed away. Bereavement can turn into mental illness when these feelings begin to profoundly impact the person’s quality of life and ability to perform daily tasks. For example, if a person in mourning still displays symptoms such as weight loss, insomnia, and lack of appetite two months after experiencing the death of a loved one, they may be diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. If a bereaved person thinks that their life no longer has purpose or wishes that they had passed away instead of their loved one, they may be grappling with mental illness. Anyone with doubts about the status of their mental health should consult with a medical professional to be sure their grief is not something more severe.
How can grief affect addiction treatment and recovery?
Grief makes many people sensitive to any added stressors that they encounter in the aftermath of a loved one’s death. For people learning to manage drug and alcohol addiction, grief can be especially disruptive. Because the loss of a loved one is a major life change, both those in early recovery and those who have been sober for years may become triggered by these often overwhelming negative thoughts and emotions. Those recovering from addiction are more likely to relapse because a loss can heighten the feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, and sorrow that led to their alcoholism or drug misuse in the first place. Grief can also aggravate symptoms of co-occurring disorders such as anxiety and depression that may have otherwise been kept at bay.
How can you manage grief and safeguard your recovery?
Grief can feel unbearable, but it can be managed. People in mourning frequently feel disconnected from their daily routine right after experiencing a loss — a perfectly normal response to the loss of a relative or close friend. Grief-stricken people can find support and comfort through their loved ones by confiding in them and finding time to do lighthearted activities together. If another family member or friend is also grieving, comforting them can help a person cope with their own sorrow. Taking the time to reflect and manage negative feelings in solitude can be equally important and therapeutic for people going through a loss.
Those who feel they may need additional support should try outpatient treatment services, such as individual counseling, where they can get the individualized support they need. Attending support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous can provide them with a support group and fresh perspectives on managing grief from others in recovery. Speaking with a counselor, recovery coach, or psychiatrist can also help. A medical professional may prescribe medications that help their clients better manage any troubling thoughts or behaviors, depending on the severity of their symptoms. Incorporating wellness therapies such as yoga, writing, and meditation into their daily routine can encourage grieving individuals to come to terms with the loss by promoting self-reflection and acceptance. These mindfulness activities also push people to live in the moment rather than dwell on their anxieties about past events or an uncertain future.
Above all, people who have just experienced the death of a loved one should remember that it is okay to not be okay and that they should not be afraid to reach out for help. It is important they do not try to repress their emotions or beat themselves up for grieving. Grief is not a sign of weakness, but an indicator of the strong and loving bonds that have been made with others.