Grief and Substance Abuse

Very sad youg man sitting on the floor crying due to his grief

Not long after a particularly painful loss in my life, I remember reading, “You don’t choose grief. Grief chooses you.” I understood this to mean that the feelings of grief are unpredictable; one day, a year after a loss, you may be surprised to find yourself thinking that life feels back to normal and the next day the rage, powerlessness, and pain of grief slams you to the floor, sucking all the life out of you.

Twenty-four years later, I have found this to be true. Some years, on the anniversary of my loss, the day will arrive without much sorrow, while in other years, the day of remembrance leads to weeping. I have not chosen grief. It has chosen me.

I also understand this sentiment expressing the unpredictability of grief to mean this; everyone grieves differently. While psychologists have identified the “stages of grief” to provide guidance and comfort in the process of grief, this does not mean that all grief looks the same, nor should it. We are individuals with different stories, emotional lives, and ways of coping.

One way that many try to cope with grief is through substance abuse. The temptation to numb feelings of loss, pain, anger, powerlessness, and shock through the numbing effects of drugs and alcohol is strong. However understandable the use of drugs and alcohol are in these situations; it can significantly complicate issues of grief.

Margaret Gerner, a social worker who specializes in helping grieving individuals and families, is a bereaved mom who battled alcohol addiction after the death of her son, Arthur. She writes, “A family can be destroyed by grief. A family can be destroyed by a drinking member. Put the two together, and there is a higher risk that the family will be destroyed by the combination.

The drinking will not magically end when grief is “over.” Without treatment, problem drinking can only get worse. If you or a family member is drinking, look carefully at the effect it is having on everyone. Don’t let one problem compound another. Seek help.” [1]

You can’t choose grief. It chooses you, just as you can’t control the events in life that bring grief. Yet life is not lived in the darkness, in the shadows of grief, or of substances. To truly live, we must not numb ourselves from our pain.

As Frederick Buechner writes, “To go out into the world, even if the world scares the hell out of you, and bores you to death, and intimidates you, and confuses you—that is the only life.” [2]

1. Gerner, M. (2010, December 21). Alcohol is Not the Answer. Retrieved June 17, 2020, from

2. Buechner, F. (2017). The remarkable ordinary: How to stop, look, and listen to life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. p. 97

About the Authors:

Travis StewartTravis Stewart, LPC has been mentoring others since 1992 and became a Licensed Professional Counselor in 2005. His counseling approach is relational and creative, helping people understand their story while also building hope for the future. Travis has experience with a wide variety of issues which might lead people to seek out professional counseling help. This includes a special interest in helping those with compulsive and addictive behaviors such as internet and screen addiction, eating disorders, anxiety, and perfectionism. Travis’ website is

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed and Approved by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 1, 2020
Published July 1, 2020, on

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.