Addiction and Grief - Hand-in-Hand - an Opportunity for Healing

Dave had been clean and sober for 17 years when his father died of alcoholism. He’d been through addiction counseling and psychotherapy. He regularly attended meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, stayed in touch with his AA sponsor and diligently took the necessary steps to stay sober. In fact, it had been more than ten years since Dave had felt the urge to drink or use drugs.

Dave's father was a maintenance alcoholic. He lived alone in a one-room apartment with a bed, a chair, a television and his collection of empty bottles. He drank himself to oblivion every day. Eventually, he drank himself to death.

Initially, friends and associates listened politely to Dave's grief, but they seemed to lose interest after a while. Others were obviously uncomfortable talking about it and urged him to "move on." Some told Dave he was "doing fine," which he took to mean that he wasn't actively grieving in front of them and making them feel uncomfortable.

In subsequent weeks Dave started to notice a familiar tug that he hadn't felt in years - the tug of his addiction. He started to have thoughts about getting high. Then he started to feel urges, which really scared him.

When I met Dave, he was at his wit's end. He was still sober, but no longer sure he could stay that way. He was scared and confused. Dealing with death had rattled him more than he realized. So he sought grief counseling.

As time went by, Dave told me about his anger over his father's alcoholism, his father’s refusal to get addiction treatment, his sadness about the course of their relationship, his sense of frustration and loss that his father had died before they had a chance to reconcile, his fear that he could end up like his father.

As Dave continued to express, honor and validate his bereavement, and work his AA program, the thoughts and urges associated with his addiction began to fade. Eventually, Dave found his way to wholeness. But he found his life, and his perspectives, had changed.

Dave is not a real person. He is a composite of people I have known. The point is that grief will always find expression. We can talk about it, express it in art or writing, etc. Or we can try to ignore it, or try to "move on," in which case it is likely to come out as behavior or compulsion. In Dave's case, and in the case of other addicts I have worked with, it came out as the urge to drink or use drugs.

I’ve witnessed this process many times. As often as not, we lack the tools to cope with death and bereavement. So, our grief finds expression in behaviors that don’t work for us. I’ve observed that the deeper the unprocessed grief, the more difficult, and possibly harmful, these behaviors can become.

There is nothing new in grief. There's just more of it. The sadness, anger, fear, sense of loss are not, in themselves, unfamiliar. They're just more intense when we’re dealing with grief. With grief counseling, bereaved people can develop the tools to deal with the intensity, the preoccupation and the exhaustion that grief entails.

Some cultures have year-long rituals associated with death and grief. We're not one of them. So the bereaved end up feeling alone and isolated with their grief.

My pamphlet, Questions and Answers About Grief, is written to demystify the grieving process. It’s available here.

I’m also available for grief counseling and assistance with bereavement, to help navigate the grief stages and learn to live with the loss. I can be reached at (812) 371-6330 or email me at ken@insight-counseling.org.