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Grief and Addiction in the Time of a Pandemic

Grief and addiction can be so intertwined in the addict as to be almost inseparable. Opposition to change, and an unwillingness to be uncomfortable, is at the heart of the addict’s reaction to grief. Dealing with grief—processing grief—is a skill every person, addict or not, must learn in order to live an emotionally healthy and drug-free life. 

Many anthropologists believe that the earliest form of a spiritual act was that of burying the dead and placing tools and other items alongside the body. This suggests a sense of connection to others within the consciousness of these people. Whether they felt a sense of loss and grief is up for debate, but nonetheless, this was definitely the precursor to funeral rituals that help us process grief and accept the passing of loved ones.

Whether we are ending a marriage, saying goodbye to the life of a loved one, or even saying goodbye to a drug or behavior to which we have been addicted, we must not forget the people and things that have been in our lives but accept them as part of the past that has given us this moment.

Dealing With Grief Means Dealing With the World as It Is

Many in modern society say we should “put the past behind us,” “just move on,” “forget it,” but living through difficult times, dealing with loss, and processing such events all play an essential role in maintaining our sobriety and allowing us to look back with a healthy perspective.

In the past, when someone I dearly loved has died, my first reactions have always been regret, anger, and sadness. A lot of “should of” statements appear in my mind: “I should have been there” “I should have not said those things” “I should have done things differently” “It should not have happened.”

This kind of inner dialogue of guilt and shame has always led me back to the bottle, as it has countless others.

Perhaps one of the most important things I did to understand the role of grief and addiction in my life was to change how I viewed myself in this world. Meditation on my own thoughts and listening to others to truly understand their point of view sculpted a new personality, one where I was no longer separate from the world, but a part of it.

My grief was my own, but only one part of an ever-changing life whose purpose was to be there for others. Yet slowly, at the same time, it granted me a contentment I had never before known and transformed my place in the world, for I was no longer at the center of it. 

Grief and Addiction — Losing My Mother

Some years ago my mother drove up to visit me, and at that time, I had separated myself from the 12-step program and had begun to revert to an emotionally and spiritually unhealthy lifestyle.

One day after I had come home from work, she said she was going out to run some errands. After not hearing from her for several hours, I called her repeatedly until she answered her phone. I immediately knew she was drunk.

She said she was lost and couldn’t find her way back home. The multitude of circuitous highways throughout the city was not helping matters. I implored her to pull over and that I would come to get her. Without response, she hung up.

I called several times again, but no answer. 

I finally did receive a call, but this time it was from the police. She had driven her car headlong into the side of a highway overpass and was pronounced dead at the scene.

After calling my father, who had been married to my mother for 46 years, and telling him of the accident, I drove to a friend’s house and plunged myself into the haze of alcohol and marijuana. 

Several months later, after a short stint at a treatment center, I was fortunate enough to avail myself of the services of a grief and addiction counselor and spent the next year following the suggestions of my 12-step sponsor, all of which I desperately needed because I lacked the basic life skills to deal with the death of my mother without using booze or weed.

Without allowing myself to first be uncomfortable with sobriety and accept the amount of anger and sadness I had within myself and toward the whole world at the time, I would not have been willing to move forward. I had to work on my perspective of the past to change the way I feel about the present. I did this through meeting with addiction and grief professionals, doing the work of a 12-step program, and allowing myself to become a part of a community of people in recovery.

Connection Overcomes Grief and Addiction

The work is never done. Tragic things can and will happen in our lives, and this has never been more immediately apparent as it is now during the Covid-19 pandemic. Every week, for some time now, I hear of a friend who has contracted the virus or know of someone who has died from it.

Many rituals (not in the sense of a formal ceremony, but more so as a daily practice) such as prayer and meditation, picking up the phone, reading spiritual literature, and getting on a zoom meeting have allowed me to connect with others and listen to perspectives that can widen my lens on the world. As horrible and significant as the loss of life is due to the pandemic, if I allow it to overwhelm me, I can’t be fully there for others or for myself.

It must be said that writing about dealing with grief and addiction is much easier than actually doing it. For me, looking back with gratitude and looking forward with hope, is always a challenge, but as I have seen in others, and in myself, the positive results that repeated action over time can have on one’s outlook on the world and on one’s self cannot be overstated.

Have you experienced grief and addiction in your life? What are your experiences? Let me know in the comments.

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David Vanden

David Vanden is a freelance writer and former graduate student of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. His most recent work entitled “The Realm of Perspective & Truth in Jainism” was published in the academic journal of the National Academy of Sciences in Ukraine: Philosophical Thought.

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