Alcohol & Grief: Drinking to Cope With Loss

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami wrote, “Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.” For many of us, death plays an ongoing role in our lives through the sensation of grief. Grief is an intense emotion that can feel overwhelming and lead to unhealthy cycles such as excessive alcohol use. Seeking relief is only human, and as a therapist on Monument’s online alcohol treatment platform, it’s my hope to help people better understand the connection between alcohol and grief, and find healthier ways to cope. 

Grief and Alcohol Use: What Is the Impact?

The loss of a loved one is considered one of the top five most stressful life events. Typically, people use alcohol to cope because it can temporarily numb emotional pain and provide an escape.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information published research on alcohol use while in the first three years of intense grief. The research concluded that the loss of a loved one is more likely to exacerbate drinking habits, especially for men. The research also found that these habits can continue for years, and even contribute to higher mortality rates among those grieving their loved one. Oftentimes, people view alcohol as one of their only options for coping, and so it can quickly become an unhealthy cycle. We all deserve better tools to help us manage the pain of loss, while also protecting our health and wellbeing. 

Why Do People Use Alcohol to Deal With Grief?

Because alcohol can provide a short-term boost in mood and relaxation, drinking is a common response after losing a loved one. Drinking alcohol releases dopamine in the brain, which can help us feel more ‘normal’ or ‘balanced’ when navigating sadness. It can also provide temporary relief for grief-related stressors such as difficulty sleeping and anxiety. However, in the long-term, using alcohol to cope can have serious consequences for one’s physical and mental health. Alcohol can intensify anxiety and depression, negatively affect sleep quality, and hold you back from confronting the emotions associated with loss. 

Does Alcohol Make Grief Worse?

At Monument, we often talk about the relationship between alcohol and anxiety, alcohol and depression, and alcohol and PTSD. For that reason, you may also be wondering if drinking can actually worsen grief. Let’s start by exploring grief a bit more deeply. You may be familiar with the Kubler-Ross Model of 5 Stages of Grief: 

  1. Denial and isolation
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance 

Alcohol can negatively impact each of these stages, and can even extend the duration of each stage. In my professional experience, I’ve witnessed the strongest influence on stage 4: depression. For many, this is the most difficult part of grieving, and it can become even more difficult due to the effects of alcohol on the brain. 

The reason drinking can worsen depression is because alcohol itself is a depressant. Research shows that drinking alcohol over an extended period of time lowers serotonin and norepinephrine levels, which help regulate mood. With the decrease of these two brain chemicals, a person already navigating depression may experience even more intense depression.

Alcohol also slows down the central nervous system and brain functioning, which stunts the ability to process emotions. This makes it harder for someone to appropriately address grief, and therefore feelings can go unresolved for an extended period of time. The longer grief goes unaddressed, the greater likelihood a cycle of using alcohol to self-medicate may persist.  

While alcohol may initially numb the painful feelings that come with grief, it can intensify depression and prevent meaningful healing. In the long term, drinking can worsen and prolong the stages of grief. However, it’s never too late to change your relationship with alcohol, and find new ways of coping.

In summary, these are the three reasons alcohol can intensify grief:

1. Alcohol is a depressant. It lowers serotonin and norepinephrine levels, which help regulate mood. This can exacerbate depressive feelings. 2. Alcohol slows down the central nervous system and brain functioning. This can stunt one's ability to process emotions, and leave grief unaddressed. 3. Drinking to cope can create an unhealthy cycle. While alcohol can temporarily numb pain, it ultimately intensifies anxiety and depression. Many people drink more as a result.

How to Cope With Grief Without Drinking

Finding ways to cope with grief doesn’t mean minimizing the loss of a loved one, but rather exploring how to better understand and manage our feelings about their passing. In so many words, we grieve as long as we are alive. But with therapy, support, and self-care, a person can begin the process of recovery and heal from their loss while honoring their loved one. Here are a few therapist-recommended tools for beginning that journey. 

Therapy

Therapy can be a powerful and effective tool for changing your relationship with alcohol and coping with grief simultaneously. Therapy can provide the space to express difficult feelings such as sadness, anger, and shame, and learn healthy ways to cope with intense emotions in daily life. Therapy can also help restructure negative thought patterns surrounding the loss of a loved one, and address co-occuring conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Support groups & community

Finding a safe and supportive space to share your experience and hear from others can make a tremendous difference while working through grief. Support groups are a helpful way to feel connected with others, and get guidance on how to change your drinking habits. Not only can community support help lessen the weight of grief, but it can also provide accountability as you work towards a sobriety or moderation goal. 

Navigating grief in recovery

Grief is a complex emotion that can significantly influence our relationship with alcohol. This is a supportive environment for anyone navigating loss to learn coping techniques, enhance resilience, and nurture hopefulness.
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Self-care practices

Just like grief is an ongoing process, so is the task of caring for oneself. It can be difficult to prioritize your own wellness while also experiencing significant grief. I recommend to my patients that they start with the basics: sleep, mental relaxation, social support, and physical movement. Finding a stress-relieving exercise or a peaceful activity that you enjoy can be a great way to regulate your body and recenter when a wave of grief or craving for alcohol arises. Here are some more ideas on how to practice self-care in recovery.

two women holding hands dressed in black

Where to Find Grief Support & Alcohol Treatment

If you or someone you love is struggling with grief and alcohol use, finding help is attainable. At Monument, we provide one-on-one alcohol therapy, along with over 50 free therapist-moderated support groups each week, with groups that focus on the topic of alcohol and grief. We also provide physician care, where you can discuss your health goals and treatment options, including medication to stop drinking. Our platform is designed so that members can access support entirely anonymously and online. 

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There are many other resources to help with grief support. You can find local support group meetings, online Facebook groups and other communities, and lots of helpful books, podcasts, and online resources. You deserve to find peace and relief, and there are lots of tools and communities to support you.

I’d like to share a personal example to help explain why drinking habits often increase after a loss. Prior to significant family losses, I was in the best physical and emotional shape of my life. After the passing of both my stepfather and grandfather, I saw myself slowly going back into various unhealthy habits and behaviors, such as overeating, as a way to cope with my grief. When we’re unexpectedly faced with difficult emotions, we fall back on old habits and “overuse” our sources of quick comfort. There’s no shame in this, and we deserve better tools to find relief. Thankfully, with the support of my loved ones, therapy, and support groups, I was able to slowly work through these habits and return to some level of normalcy while still working through my grief. Grief takes its own toll on the mind and body. It’s vital we are as healthy as possible while processing it. Just by reading more about this topic today you’ve already taken an incredible step towards finding genuine healing and a healthier relationship with alcohol. 

Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

About the Author

Nathaniel AlexanderNathaniel Alexander is a firm believer in the 3 C’s: Choice, Common Sense and Consequences. If a person uses sound common sense, their decision-making efforts improve, and so does their outcomes for life. Graduating from the College of William & Mary, he has extensive education with training in several modalities, including Trauma-Informed Care, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Motivational Interviewing, and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy. He is always interested in learning new approaches to meeting client needs. With over 25 years of experience, he has worked in several outpatient substance use and mental health programs, including inpatient, residential and outpatient services. He is very excited to help those who desire change via virtual therapy. The hope is to break down walls and barriers for clients to get the care they need in the most accessible ways possible. He values adapting with clients changing needs. He has a desire for empowering, encouraging and educating clients to recognize their strengths amidst their life situations in order to transition towards a sense of efficacy and fulfillment.