Addiction, Grief, And Loss: What’s The Connection?

Loss is traumatic. Unfortunately, at some point in every person’s life, they will experience some type of loss.

From the sudden death of a family member to the cessation of a meaningful relationship with a loved one, losing someone significant can disorient and strip anyone from previous ties with logic. Loss can even increase the risk of someone developing addictive behaviors and unhealthy habits.

For this reason, the heartache brought on by losing a loved one is strongly correlated with the development of substance use disorders and relapse on alcohol and drugs. By understanding the link between addiction and grief, people can prepare for the ways that the death of a loved one can negatively impact their ability to cope with uncomfortable emotions.

If someone sinks into a hole of addiction after losing someone close to them, substance abuse treatment programs and other support groups can help.

A man suffering from addiction due to grief and loss is drinking from a bottle of alcohol.

How The Brain Grieves

Grief isn’t “all in your head”; it’s also in your body.

Grief affects the human limbic system and disrupts our brain chemicals, including dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine and serotonin are thought to be deeply intertwined with mood, happiness, and emotional stress regulation. Coincidentally, alcohol and drugs affect many of these same brain chemicals.

Bereavement means “the state of being where someone is grieving the death of a loved one.” It characteristically includes a prolonged and indefinite period of suffering. One study by the Journal of Behavioral Medicine on health outcomes associated with the years of mourning found that losing a loved one, directly and indirectly, causes several negative health repercussions.

One of these adverse health repercussions was a declined sleep quality after losing a loved one, and another included an increase in alcohol consumption in the years of grief.

It’s no wonder that grief and loss can lead to someone developing a life-threatening addiction to drugs or alcohol. For, the brain and the body both feel loss, and loss can manifest as physical pain and biological complications.

When Someone Can’t Cope

Life is complicated, and death is an unavoidable part of life. When someone never properly developed the coping mechanisms necessary to deal with the loss of a loved one, they may have more trouble coping than their peers.

If someone cannot tolerate losing a loved one, or doesn’t have a proper support network to help them sort through their complicated grief, they may turn to external substances to take the edge off of their pain.

Of course, there is no one “right” way to deal with loss or grieve a loved one. However, drugs and alcohol can worsen grief and prolong the healing process. Proper coping mechanisms do the opposite. In fact, they help people find healthy ways to sit with and work through their uncomfortable feelings, so they heal wholly and avoid any dysfunctional adaptations to pain.

A woman suffering from opioid addiction due to grief and loss is coping with pills and drinking a glass of wine.

Symptoms of Grief

People who are experiencing grief will likely encounter a rollercoaster of emotions. Some of these most common emotions might include:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritation
  • Agitation
  • Sadness
  • Numbness
  • Difficulty concentrating or inattentiveness
  • Anger
  • Disorientation

These symptoms may lead to or accentuate the physical consequences of grief, like trouble sleeping, tiredness, and an overall disruption in eating patterns.

All of these “side effects” of grief are natural reactions to losing someone you love or experiencing an immense amount of stress.

The Grieving Process

While other animals grieve their loved ones, humans are particularly unique in our innate ability to form lasting emotional ties. The desire to emotionally “attach” to others is a need rooted in human survival. This need is less a logical choice than an intuitive pull. Therefore, the breaking of these emotional ties during death isn’t a rational process for people to tread through, either.

According to the Kubler-Ross Model, there are five distinct stages of grief one can expect to experience after they lose a loved one. These stages include:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance
An info-graphic depicting the 5 stages of grief, also known as the Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle.


People who mourn do not always experience these stages in chronological order, or for any particular time. Sometimes, people experience these stages more than once, or seesaw between a few steps.

It may take months or even years to return to “normal” after losing someone you love. This is typical and it’s crucial to be gentle with yourself while grieving.

Losing A Loved One In Recovery

Many people recovering from substance use disorders, like drug addiction or alcoholism, experience the death of a friend or family member while in recovery.

Unfortunately, death and pain can make many people question their sobriety and prompt the return of an urge to use drugs or alcohol.

If someone in recovery from addiction loses a loved one, it might be a good time to develop a healthy relationship with a higher power and reach out to a strong and supportive network of peers. Or, it may be time to intensify your relationship with a self-defined entity that is greater than yourself and any earthly afflictions.

An alcoholic woman grieving and suffering from loss sits by the window.

Relationships are the foundation on which humans develop and thrive. When someone loses a loved one, they often find themselves groundless, lost, and scared. Sometimes, it can shake peoples’ faith and disrupt their ability to make and maintain healthy connections with others. In such a vulnerable time, developing a strong social network of understanding friends and family is necessary for addicts and alcoholics in recovery.

What To Do If You Need Help

If you or a loved one recently lost a friend or family member and may be dependent on drugs or alcohol, seek addiction treatment today. Treatment facilities like Hotel California by the Sea can address the recent loss of a loved one and provide addicts and alcoholics with the coping mechanisms necessary to stand through their grief.

Multiple support groups exist for people who’ve lost a loved one, if attending a treatment center for addiction isn’t your top choice. However, proper mental health and addiction treatment can help people who are grieving develop the necessary coping skills to build resilience and live life bravely.

Reach out to our inpatient treatment center today if you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction. Our admissions staff is ready to assist you with any questions or concerns.