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How Grieving the Loss of a Spouse Can Lead to Substance Abuse

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Losing a loved one is one of the most difficult experiences to deal with in a person’s life. The worst is when it’s untimely and unexpected. Losing a husband or wife is different than the death of a grandparent or pet. A lifetime of memories is cut short and leaves a dark hole of grief in its place. People may turn to substance abuse when this happens.

But, there are better ways on how to cope with losing a spouse. Grieving the loss of a spouse or loved one will get worse with substance abuse. The right treatment can help bereaved patients see the beauty in life again. 

Substance Abuse Seems How To Cope With Losing a Spouse 

People don’t turn to drugs and alcohol because they’re bad people. Often, they turn to it to mask a problem in their life. Life can be overwhelmingly beautiful and sad simultaneously. It can show people their soulmate and take the love of their life away just as easily. 

The pain that comes with an unpredictable loss of a spouse may seem insurmountable, especially at the beginning. Even when someone knows their spouse is dying from the start, their death seems cruel. Drugs and alcohol can temporarily take away the pain that pain away because of the way they affect the brain. 

grieving loss of spouse

For instance, drugs and alcohol can speed up or depress a body’s systems depending on the substance. They mainly work within the central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of the brain and spinal cord. These hormones are usually the ones that drugs and alcohol affect: 

  • Endorphins: These brain chemicals are known as “pleasure hormones,” according to Harvard’s Health Blog.
  • Serotonin: This regulates happiness, anxiety, and mood in general. It also helps with sleep, nausea, bowel movements, and bone health. 
  • Dopamine: This is in charge of reward-seeking, mood, memory, and more. 
  • Epinephrine: It’s also known as adrenaline. It triggers the body’s “fight or flight” response. 
  • Norepinephrine: This plays a role in mood, ability to concentrate, and stress. 

Drugs and alcohol can force a person to feel happy and relaxed by manipulating these chemicals. So, substance abuse might seem like how to cope with losing a spouse. According to the journal Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, people turn to alcohol when grieving the loss of a spouse. But substance abuse isn’t the right way to deal with painful emotions. In fact, they can leave widows in a worse place than where they started. 

Drugs and Alcohol Aren’t How To Cope With Losing a Spouse

Despite the risks involved, many Americans abuse drugs and alcohol. The 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that 1 in 12 American adults suffer from a substance use disorder. That translates into 18.7 million American adults. Some research shows that widows aren’t any more likely to be a part of this statistic than women who aren’t widowed. 

grieving loss of spouse

Yet, certain peer-reviewed research shows that widows over the age of 60 were 1.37 times more likely to use drugs. This study also showed that it didn’t matter how long a woman was widowed. The pain of losing a husband or wife can last a lifetime without the proper help. 

Drug abuse isn’t how to cope with losing a spouse because it: 

  • Weakens the immune system 
  • Can lead to heart conditions 
  • Might make a person nauseous
  • Can result in bodily aches and pains 
  • Leads to brain damage over time 
  • Can cause seizures, mental confusion, and strokes 
  • Might lead to lung disease 
  • Will lead to death in many cases 

An estimated 135,000 Americans die each year due to drugs and alcohol, based on the Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. Drug abuse isn’t a viable way to deal with the loss of a spouse. With this, drug abuse hurts everyone who cares for a widow. The death of the spouse arguably hurts the widow left behind the most. Yet, it also hurts everyone else who cared for the person who passed away. 

Seeing another person they love turn to drug abuse instead of them will only lead to more grief. Ultimately, it will lead to more health problems over time. It can also lead to more financial strain. Either way, a deceased spouse wouldn’t want their loved one to deal with their death through drug addiction.  

Mental Health Affects How to Cope With Losing a Spouse

Mental Health Affects How to Cope With Losing a Spouse

Dealing with the loss of a spouse can trigger painful emotions that seem unbearable. Mental illness can come about for many reasons, stress being one of them. The emotional stress from losing a husband or wife can easily lead to a decline in mental health. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), half of the people who have a substance use disorder also suffer from a mental illness. This is called a dual diagnosis, co-occurring disorders, or comorbidity. 

Studies show that widows are at risk of developing depression. A survey found that women who were not depressed developed this mental illness during the first year of grieving the loss of a spouse. However, widows who were depressed before because their husbands died were more depressed, but not significantly. Additionally, they were depressed pre-bereavement because their husband was ill. 

Common signs of depression are: 

  • Feeling sad, anxious, or numb almost all the time 
  • Constantly feeling hopeless, guilty, and/or worthless 
  • Lack of energy 
  • Loss of interest in activities that used to provide excitement 
  • Visibly moving or talking more slowly 
  • Mental fog 
  • Bodily aches and pains that won’t go away 
  • Irregular appetite 
  • Thoughts or plans of suicide 

It’s time for a widow to get help if she starts to display any of these signs. Widows have a higher risk of depression, and possibly suicide because of it. Around 800,000 people die from suicide every year worldwide. 

Drug abuse can make depression worse. A widow needs to look into drug and alcohol addiction therapy if she starts to display these signs and symptoms: 

  • Inability to stop using drugs and alcohol 
  • Ignoring responsibilities to use substances instead 
  • Doing drugs and alcohol in inappropriate scenarios (ie: driving) 
  • Spending an excessive amount of money on drugs and alcohol 
  • Worse mental health 

How To Cope With Losing a Spouse Presents Issues for LGBTQ+ 

Sexual minorities in the United States face a unique set of problems throughout life. Even with the legalization of gay marriage, many people still don’t accept members of the LGBTQ+ community. Hence, this presents unique problems for queer people dealing with losing a husband or wife. Ignorant friends and family may have rejected them for simply being who they are. This leaves them in a more vulnerable position than most when it comes to how to cope with losing a spouse. 

Countless studies show how drugs and alcohol affect people as a whole. There are fewer on how drug abuse hurts the LGBTQ+ community. However, the research out there shows that widowed lesbians have an increased risk of developing a substance use disorder. 

The journal Alcohol Research: Current Reviews reports that lesbians were three times more likely to delve into drug addiction than heterosexual women. They were also seven times more likely to meet the criteria for alcohol dependence. Bisexual women were 6.5 times more likely. Queer women are more vulnerable to the temptation of drugs and alcohol because of societal stress. Emotional stress from the death of a spouse can make them even more vulnerable. 

How To Cope With Losing a Spouse in a Positive Way 

Substance abuse isn’t the answer to healing after the loss of a spouse. There are positive ways to cope with losing a loved one that will jumpstart the healing process. Certain activities can heal the mind and heart at the same time. Some of these include: 

  • Spending time in nature 
  • Journaling 
  • Creating art 
  • Exercising 
  • Meditating 
  • Trying out therapy 
  • Attending a support group for widows 
  • Joining a support group for widows online 

It’s easier to turn to drugs and alcohol than it is to make the right decision. But, in the long-term, taking the route of drug abuse will draw out the time it takes to heal. Before using drugs and alcohol to mask the pain of grief, try out a healthy coping mechanism. Just try it for five minutes. Then, maybe you’ll want to do ten minutes more. 

Making the decision to step away from substances in troubled times is how to cope with losing a spouse in a positive way. Also, make sure to rely on friends and family. They can act as a strong support network, even if it’s tough to reach out.  

We Can Show You How To Cope With Losing a Spouse Without Drugs and Alcohol 

Losing a husband or wife can derail a woman’s life. That’s why New Directions for Women has gender-specific programs to show members how to cope with losing a spouse. We have a variety of addiction treatment programs in California to help all types of women. If you or a woman you care for suffers from a substance use disorder, reach out to us now.  


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