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Monday, March 18, 2013

Filling the Void--Grief and Addictive Behaviors

Sometimes grieving people will turn to unhealthy alternatives to fill the emptiness in their lives.  In my case, after the death of my son I filled the void by over-eating.  I already had a problem with weight and used food emotionally.  The loss of my son sent me into an eating frenzy trying to fill the hole in my heart by filling my stomach.  I ended up gaining 60 pounds!  It’s odd because in the initial weeks of grief I could hardly eat or drink and would have to force myself to get anything swallowed.  It was as if doing anything to provide fuel was counter to what my body was experiencing with the physical symptoms of grief.  That didn’t last and then I began the eating to excess.

Grief experts caution that grieving people may turn to addictive activities or substances in an attempt to cope with the loss.  Grieving individuals may increase their use of alcohol, abuse prescription medication, or begin using illegal substances as a way to self-medicate.  Unfortunately this usually results in further problems because the grieving person is already not functioning fully and these additional issues make life even more chaotic and sometimes dangerous.
Alcohol use is so prevalent in our society and because it is easily available, well-meaning friends or family may offer it to a grieving person to “calm their nerves”.  The problem is that alcohol is a depressant and if you are already in the throes of sadness due to grief this is going to make the problem worse.  In addition the physical toll from alcohol abuse will combine with the stress effects from the grief to make you even more exhausted and unable to cope with daily tasks. 

message from the Dean of Students at Purdue University put it very well; “resorting to drugs [or alcohol] of any kind only turns down the sound while the music keeps playing.”  The grief is still going to be there and in the end you still must do the work to travel your own healing journey.  Nothing can take away the pain and numbing yourself to it will only delay the inevitable.  Many recovering addicts tell of beginning their addictions after a significant loss.  Once they become sober, even if it is a decade later, they still must experience the grief and go through a painful, delayed grieving process.
My use of food was my own negative coping behavior to try to shelter myself from the pain.  It didn’t work.  In addition to that I caused myself further health problems with increased blood pressure and high cholesterol.  The stress that my body was already experiencing was doubled because of my attempt to soothe myself rather than use healthier methods to grieve.  I have lost the weight and no longer look at food as “medicine”.
In my next post I will discuss some suggestions for healthy ways to help with healing on your grieving journey.

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