Mourning the passing of a parent is raw and emotionally volatile. Whether you are a child, a teen or an adult when they pass, the pain is both physical and emotional, and it ebbs and flows over time in unpredictable ways. When you first learn of your parent’s passing, you might feel numb, your emotions dulled by shock. On the other hand, you might feel like you’ve been hit in the face with a fire hose of pain, and you struggle to hold any emotion back.
The emotional turmoil you may feel when dealing with the death of someone close is what many psychologists call the stages of grief. Not really stages, these are more like the process of dealing with loss that a surviving child of any age might go through:
- Denial: When you first hear the news, or even days or months later, your gut reaction may be denial. The death may seem so unreal that you can’t believe it is actually happening. This is a defense mechanism that our minds enact to protect us from the shock.
- Anger: When we’re dealing with immense emotional pain, we can try to cope by assigning blame. For example, it feels far safer to feel angry at a doctor than to accept the truth. You may even have bursts of intense anger directed at neighbors, friends, family or even inanimate objects. Anger is like a volcano, letting up trapped emotions so that they escape in powerful waves.
- Bargaining: It’s not uncommon when dealing with the death of someone close, like a parent, to feel like if we had only done something — one little thing — differently, Mom or Dad would still be alive. Bargaining is a coping mechanism to help us feel like we have some control over the situation.
- Depression: It’s natural to feel sadness and longing when mourning. The depression stage can also be marked by feelings of regret and deep worry. While there is no time frame for dealing with depression from grief, lingering too long in this stage or not working through our emotions can impact the rest of our lives.
- Acceptance: Acceptance isn’t about happiness or contentment — it’s about finding peace. It’s coming to terms with the reality of the situation, accepting the death for what it is, and finding closure. It’s unpredictable and cannot be forced.
Avoiding the Temptation of Alcohol
The truth is, there’s no road map for navigating the stages of grief. You won’t be handed a manual that explains the best ways to cope with the loss of a loved one. That’s why when we deal with such a traumatic loss, the temptation to escape can be overwhelming. It’s important to make sure that you don’t rely on drugs, alcohol and other substances to ease your grief or numb the pain. As much as you may want to find moments of peace and calm, there are better, healthier and more effective ways to cope with the loss, and at every age, there are different ways to heal after the death of a parent.
Working through grief can make you more vulnerable to turning to substances, which is dangerous even if sporadic at first. That’s because the more you avoid dealing with the pain, the more you risk developing an abuse problem. We all make our way through our feelings of loss in our own time, which means we may be tempted turn to alcohol or drugs at any time. While trying to cope with substances may temporarily relieve your grief-stricken pain, it can cause more severe problems in the long run.
Deep down you know that self-medicating with drugs or alcohol won’t take away the pain of your parent’s death. However, how we access this truth can depend on several factors, like if the death was drawn out or sudden, or how old we are when we lose a parent.
Here are a few ways to help people of all ages through the five stages of grief without relying on drugs or alcohol:
Drugs and alcohol can act as depressants in the body, especially the brain. A teenager’s brain is in vital stages of development, and relying on substances to cope can intensify negative emotions, such as sadness or shame. These feelings might be so hard to shake that you feel them well into adulthood. We all know that the teenage era can include some of the most challenging years of our lives — losing a parent only makes that worse. If you turn to drugs or alcohol when coping with the death of parent, you could be making your healing process much harder. You’ll experience sadness for much longer, and that can impact your grades, your chances of getting into college, and your entire future.
Teens can deal with grief in healthier ways by getting active. A physical outlet for your emotions can help you relieve stress and tension, and if your activity involves joining a team or a league, the social component can provide support even if you don’t talk specifically about the death to your teammates.
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For a while, grief can touch every part of your life, and substance abuse only adds more layers of complications. In the beginning, your boss and coworkers might have a seemingly endless supply of sympathy, but if your drug or alcohol method of coping impacts your ability to do your job well, they might have to make a tough decision. Thinking they’re helping, your friends might enable your alcohol and drug use in the beginning, but addiction can quickly tear away at the quality of relationships. Abusing substances makes the grief process harder and longer, creating roadblocks that make it harder to work through grief in a healthy way. Your work and relationships can suffer in the long run if you turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with loss.
Adults can explore healthy ways of coping by making sure they are getting plenty of sleep, eating regularly and working out at least three times a week. Living a healthy lifestyle, which includes opening up to friends, family or a professional about your pain, is one of the best ways to avoid relying on substances to ease your pain.
It may sound unrealistic at first, but children, especially those dealing with grief, are also at risk for substance abuse. A 2006 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) found that children who start drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to become dependent on substances. If the adults around the children are coping with grief through drugs and alcohol, children see that behavior modeled and are more likely to turn to substances to try to manage difficult feelings. Not only will this impact a child’s emotional health, but their physical health as well. They could face a lifelong battle with addiction, which can destroy their dreams, their future and their life.
Try to get children talking. No matter how young, they have a story to tell. If they feel safe to open up and explore their feelings, they’ll be less likely to suppress overwhelming emotions. The best things adults can do is listen and stay connected. When a child loses a parent, their entire world changes. If they have people they can look up to who are modeling healthy grieving techniques, they’ll be less likely to turn to substances to deal with the pain.
No matter the age, the risk for substance abuse while grieving increases if you have a history of anxiety, depression, previous addiction or a lack of social support. When a parent dies, especially one that you had a close bond with, you have to try to keep your communication open and give yourself permission to feel and heal.
- Grief.com – The Five Stages of Grief
- What’s Your Grief? – When Grief Gets Physical: dealing with physical grief symptoms
- Vertical Health & PsyCom – The Five Stages of Grief
- StarTribune – People need to be allowed to grieve when grieving is in order
- Active – How To Cope With The 5 Stages Of Injury Grief
- SAMHSA – A Day in the Life of Older Adults: Substance Use Facts
- National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism – Underage Drinking
- KidsHealth – Helping a child cope with the death of a parent