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The Role of Grief in Addiction

How unresolved grief can impact your life.

Key points

  • Unresolved grief and trauma are major contributors to substance abuse.
  • Mourning the loss of the addiction is essential to recovery.
  • Coping skills for difficult times include deep breathing or the butterfly hug.

Most people tend to associate grief with death, but we now know that we can experience grief through the loss of anything to which we are attached and is important to us.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief is painful. Unfortunately, we will all have to experience it. One of the ways people may try to cope with that pain is by numbing themselves through the use of substances. Doing this, however, can only extend the feelings we are trying to suppress and make things worse. Research and experience have shown that there is a strong connection between substance abuse and complicated grief or persistent complex grief disorder1 which are disabling and debilitating responses to grief.

Grief is one of the core issues to be addressed in treating substance use disorders (SUD). Sometimes the grief comes before the SUD, and at other times the use is intensified by a loss. The combination of trauma and grief can be powerful. Left unprocessed, it eats away at us and can make our lives miserable.

Indeed, one of the factors strongly related to the development of a SUD is childhood trauma, such as the death of a loved one, sexual abuse, or physical harm. Earlier research found that those with childhood trauma who began using substances at an earlier age, had a more extensive polydrug abuse history and developed a greater dependency.2 It has also been found that bereaved children between the ages of six and 18 who have experienced multiple losses appear to be at an elevated risk for later substance misuse.3 People with complicated grief are at a higher risk of developing SUD. Those with a SUD are also found to have a higher level of loss-related experiences.

Grieving the personal losses in one's life is an important task for all of us and is also an essential step in addiction recovery. However, for a truly successful recovery from SUD, it is important that the user also grieve the loss of their addiction. This may seem strange to some, but treating addiction is not just about giving up the substance. It is also about changing the way of life that went with it. Usually, by the time someone enters a recovery program, their addicted behavior has likely wreaked havoc in their lives. There is probably not an area of their life that has not been impacted. Health, family, jobs, finances, and relationships have all suffered.

Given the devastation that can come from addiction, most people–particularly family members–are not likely to see it as something to be mourned. To understand its significance for the user, it is important to realize the role the addiction has played for them. Not only has it become their primary coping mechanism, but it has also become their way of life. When experiencing emotional pain, the substance was there to soothe and comfort them. It was an escape and provided a brief reprieve from their bad feelings.

Giving it up means changing routines and habits surrounding its use. It will also mean changing some of the relationships that were developed during that time and the places you used to frequent. Basically, giving up an addiction means altering much of what you do daily. It is a monumental change. The question then becomes, what do you do without your primary coping mechanism?

During recovery, it is important to have a strong support system, including therapists and counselors. Become involved in one of the many support groups for users. Learning to talk about feelings in a safe environment is of utmost importance. Keeping a journal is another helpful form of self-expression. Learning how to calm down and center yourself during times of distress are important tools that can be used in all areas of your life.

For example, some of the basic procedures recommended to deal with stress involve such things as deep breathing, where one is to breathe in deeply through the nose to the count of four. Hold your breath to the count of four and then exhale through your mouth to a four count. Engage in some form of physical activity and learn progressive relaxation techniques such as tensing and relaxing the major muscle groups in your body.

In addition, there is a self-help technique developed in EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) that has been found to be successful in calming and centering those who have used it. It can be used independently of the full EMDR protocol. It is called the butterfly hug. Originally used with children, it works equally as well with adults. To do it, you cross your arms in front of you, putting your right hand on your left shoulder and your left on your right shoulder. Then you envision or think about your safe place and tap your hands alternately four to six times. Then stop, take a breath, and see how that feels. These procedures are helpful for anyone who wants to decrease feelings of stress and promote calmness.

Overcoming addiction is hard work. At times it may feel overwhelming. It is important to have a variety of tools and strategies to call on to keep moving forward. It has been found that individuals who were treated for their addiction and unresolved grief were found to be less depressed. Their cravings decreased and they were more optimistic about the future.3 It appears that addressing both grief and addiction during recovery can lead to more successful outcomes.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


1) Anna Parisi, Anjalee Sharma, Matthew O. Howard and Amy Blank Wilson (2019) The relationship between substance misuse and complicated grief: A systematic review. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 103, 43-57.


3) Furr, S.R., Johnson, W.D., and Goodall, C.S. (2015. Grief and recovery: The prevalence of grief and loss in substance abuse treatment. Journal of Addictions and Offender Counseling, 36(1),43-56.doi:10.1002/j.2161-1874.2015.00034.x

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