Grief must be expressed

Grief may be expressed–without the aid of alcohol, drugs

When Joanne and Bob (not their real names) came to the Center for Grief in St. Paul, Minn., after their daughter’s death, they were paralyzed by loss. They couldn’t sleep or work, and their relationship was eroding.

“We also quickly discovered they were attempting to anesthetize their pain by drinking it away,” said Tom Ellis, the nonprofit center’s executive director and the author of an upcoming book, “The Heart of Grief: New Understandings of Loss.” “They had adopted the ritual of consuming several bottles of wine with dinner and would come to therapy exhausted, overwhelmed, and ‘stuck’ in the grieving process. Before we could deal with issues of loss, they needed to deal with their chemical dependency. They needed to ‘clear the channels’ to feeling.”

“Having feelings that match reality is a sign of mental health,” said John Mac Dougall, manager of Spiritual Care and the Family Program at Hazelden. “Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., said, ‘I tried to drown my sorrows, but they floated.’ Drugs and alcohol suppress, distort and interfere with all feelings, including grief. Whenever you have to do something painful, it’s better to do it sober so the ‘real you’ can show up at your appointments.”

Mac Dougall maintains that our bodies are not well designed for the storage of feelings, but they are well designed for the expression of feelings. Grief doesn’t go away, and the longer it is denied, the more powerful it can become. Mac Dougall said that trying to ignore loss is like throwing an overdue bill in a drawer. “The problem doesn’t disappear. It grows bigger as the interest accumulates.”

Mac Dougall and Ellis concur that having a solid support system is critical for grieving persons. While talking to friends and family can be comforting, it may be more helpful to connect with your mutual-help group, a qualified therapist or counselor, or a spiritual advisor when you experience deep loss.

“Most people discover that their address book changes as they attempt to navigate the grief process,” said Ellis. “There is often an expectation that family and close friends should understand or share the same feelings, and a deep disappointment when that isn’t the case. Talk to someone who has a background that pertains to your issues, someone with whom you can be honest and vulnerable and who will not judge you or your way of grieving.”

“Some friends send ‘shut up’ messages framed as support,” cautioned Mac Dougall. When well-meaning friends tell you “your husband wouldn’t want you to be so sad,” or “at least you can have another baby,” they are really saying ‘I want you to move on; your grief makes me anxious.'”

Sometimes family members insist that a grieving elderly relative take medications to “get them through” the difficult times after the death of a loved one. These drugs may make the family feel better, because they won’t have to see mom or grandpa hurting. But anything that separates us from reality is not helpful in the long run, said Mac Dougall. Often, they just need someone to talk to. While a sleep aid may be appropriate for the first night or two, it is particularly dangerous for chemically dependent people to medicate their emotional pain, because it can put their sobriety at risk, he said.

No one is immune to grief and loss, so Mac Dougall said it makes sense to put strategies in place now that will protect us when loss does hit. Start thinking about how to nurture friendships so you can talk about ‘real life’ issues when you need to, he said. Learn what community resources are available in case you or a loved one should need such services in the future. And if you are in recovery from addiction, be certain your physician, dentist, and pharmacist know it so they won’t prescribe anything that threatens your sobriety.

We grieve because we love, and when we attempt to numb our grief with alcohol or drugs, we also dull our ability to feel love and joy. Grief is a messy, imperfect, and non-linear process with no rules or time limits. Honoring our grief is a way to honor ourselves. We don’t have to do it perfectly, and we don’t have to do it alone.

For more information on grieving and grief services, contact the Center for Grief at their Web site at Or contact a similar center or a mental health or spiritual care specialist in your community.

From; Alive & Free is a health column that provides information to help prevent substance abuse problems and address such problems. It is created by Hazelden, a nonprofit agency based in Center City, Minn., that offers a wide range of information and services on addiction.


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