Grief and Substance Abuse


BY: Diane Snyder-Cowan

CATEGORY: Grief and Loss

For some, the pain of grief is unbearable. To quote a colleague — we live in a death-denying, pain-avoiding society. To numb the pain of grief, some folks choose to have a have a drink in the evening. And then have two drinks and before long it is a fifth a day and then some. Some turn to other substances, prescription drugs or narcotics.

Alcohol and drugs thwart the ability to process events and they interfere with grief work. In the bereavement center we find that unresolved grief is common with folks struggling with drugs and alcohol – whether or not they started as a result of grief.

For some, substance use turns to substance abuse after the death of a loved one. For others, substance use already had control of their life.  Almost anything can trigger a grief reaction. Sights, sounds, smells, places, events…the list is endless. And grief is often a trigger for those in recovery. It doesn’t matter which comes first or what triggers what–the grief or the use. The bottom line is that substance use doesn’t take away the pain of grief, it only hides the pain of grief.

In addition, self-medicating grief with drugs and alcohol can have serious consequences. The user can become reckless, use deadly combinations of drugs and alcohol and engage in risky behaviors. They may come in contact with ruthless people or may isolate themselves completely.

With addiction, grievers use substances to cope. Healthy support systems are lacking. They medicate, avoid and minimize their feelings. In turn, grief is not processed and losses are not fully grieved.

Grief recovery, like addiction recovery, takes time.  Everyone’s calendar is different. And it is no easy task. In healthy grieving, the bereaved work through the pain of grief, accept the reality of the loss, and find meaning and purpose in life. Losses move from being a painful raw open wound to a memory, albeit bittersweet at times.

Both grief and substance abuse are treatable. Some counselors believe you should treat both at the same time. Others believe you need to address the substance abuse first.  If you are struggling with these issues, please consult a professional. You do not need to suffer alone.


About Diane Snyder Cowan​
Diane Snyder Cowan is the director of Western Reserve Grief Services.

She oversees the hospice and bereavement programs and expressive therapy. Diane is a Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Administrator and a Board Certified Music Therapist.

She currently serves as the Section Leader for the Bereavement Professional Section of the National Council of Hospice and Palliative Professionals and previously served on the Board of Directors of the Certification Board for Music Therapy.

Diane has presented on music therapy and grief and loss throughout the country and has written for many publications on music therapy and on grief and loss.

She strives to provide support and education to grieving individuals and those who work with them.