Grief is a response to deep sorrow, often caused by the loss of a loved one. It’s a heavy emotion that’s painful to process, and many people turn to coping mechanisms like alcohol. Alcohol is also included in a variety of grieving rituals, such as toasting to someone’s life at a funeral reception.
But is alcohol truly helpful to the grieving process? Is drinking to numb pain dangerous? And what alternatives can grieving people turn to for healing? Here’s why grief and alcohol aren’t a good combination, and what else you can do to cope with the pain of loss.
Why Do People Use Alcohol To Manage Grief?
In general, some of the most common motives for alcohol use include enhancing positive emotions and alleviating negative ones1. Alcohol has a temporary calming effect on the nervous system, and people frequently use alcohol to cope with stressful situations—including difficulties at work, divorce, relationship issues, and loss.
The Holmes-Rahe Stress Index assigns point values to stressful life events, then ranks these events from most to least stressful. At 100 points, the most stressful life event is the loss of a spouse. The fifth most stressful on this index is the death of a close family member, while the death of a friend is ranked seventeenth2.
Considering the above, it’s no surprise that people turn to alcohol in times of grief. Grief is one of the most intensely painful and stressful feelings humans can experience, and there is nothing abnormal or shameful about seeking a way to cope. But is alcohol a healthy or helpful approach to healing?
Does Alcohol Numb Emotional Pain?
In the short term, alcohol can help mute emotional pain. Long-term, however, drinking alcohol often makes the problem worse. So, why does it sometimes feel like alcohol is helping in the moment?
Alcohol slows the central nervous system, which helps people feel relaxed3. It floods the brain with dopamine, creating feelings of euphoria. It also inhibits judgment and memory. Together, these effects can temporarily relieve feelings like sadness and stress.
Unfortunately, the key word here is “temporarily.” You may experience momentary relief from emotional pain when you drink alcohol. For a few minutes or hours, the burden of your grief could feel a bit lighter. But when the alcohol wears off and the negative emotions come rushing back, you’ll likely feel even worse than you did before.
Alcohol and healing—genuine healing—do not mix well. When you use alcohol to slow your brain and numb your feelings, it’s difficult to process your grief. Although grief is incredibly painful, it’s also a normal and healthy response to loss. The best way to heal is to allow yourself to grieve by experiencing and actively addressing your emotions4. If you ignore or bury your grief with coping mechanisms like alcohol, your unresolved feelings can lead to emotional or physical illness.
The Dangers of Using Alcohol To Deal with Grief
Another danger of drinking to deal with grief is the possibility of becoming dependent on alcohol. If drinking makes you feel better, and you feel worse when the alcohol wears off, you may start to drink more and more. As your tolerance increases, you’ll need to drink increasing amounts of alcohol to experience the relief you felt previously5. Over time, this can lead to physical dependence.
Many people who drink chronically to manage a major loss develop some level of alcohol use disorder. This can negatively impact relationships, job performance, and finances, and cause serious physical and mental health problems. While drinking may provide temporary relief, habitual alcohol use can add more issues, complicate an already difficult process, and potentially create a feedback cycle that reinforces problem drinking.
Men, Alcohol, and Grieving
Research shows that grieving men are at particularly high risk for alcohol-related problems. In one study, men bereaved for one year and men bereaved for two years scored higher on multiple dimensions of dependence symptoms and harmful alcohol use than non-bereaved men. Bereaved men also have higher morbidity and mortality rates, potentially linked to their alcohol consumption6.
Why do men’s struggles with grief and alcohol appear more severe than women’s struggles? Cultural expectations about masculinity may be the culprit. Men are often discouraged from showing their emotions. Drinking through their grief is sometimes seen as more masculine than actually grieving.
In reality, it takes courage and strength to tackle the feelings associated with loss head-on. Grieving is a deeply human emotion, not a male or female trait. For any person, the best approach to grief is to feel it and process it without trying to numb the pain. As scary and overwhelming as grieving can be, the only way to get to the other side is to allow yourself to go through it.
How To Avoid Using Alcohol To Manage Grief
- Talk to trusted loved ones about how you’re feeling. Surround yourself with support from people who care.
- Join a support group, or talk to a grief counselor or therapist.
- If talking to others makes you uncomfortable, you can also try journaling about your feelings to better understand and process them. Or, use any creative expression of grief that feels right for you.
- Instead of ignoring your feelings, acknowledge them. Understand that while the grieving process is different for everyone, feelings like sadness, anger, fear, guilt, and denial are perfectly normal and acceptable.
- Take care of yourself physically to support yourself emotionally. Try to eat nutritious meals, exercise, hydrate, and get plenty of rest.
- Spend time doing activities that you enjoy and that bring you happiness. At first, it may feel strange or even like a betrayal to enjoy yourself. But your loved one would want you to continue living, and it’s important to stay in touch with yourself and your favorite hobbies.
- Understand what triggers your grief and prepare in advance. Anniversaries or birthdays, for example, can feel especially painful. Plan not to be alone on these difficult days, or find a meaningful way to commemorate your loss.
Support for Limiting Drinking While Grieving
If you’re worried about your drinking, talk to family members or close friends about your experience. When you’re craving a drink, call one of your trusted confidantes for company, go enjoy a favorite hobby, take a walk, or engage in any other activity that can take your mind off alcohol.
Cutting back on alcohol is often challenging, especially if it’s been a crutch for your grief. You may need support from a professional or a more structured program. This is where telemedicine may be helpful: You can now get support for problem drinking through a smartphone app, without creating more disruption in your life. Ria Health offers access to medication, coaching, and helpful digital tools to track your progress.
If you’re struggling with alcohol use in the wake of a loss, get in touch with us to learn how we can help you regain control from the comfort of home.