The Grieving of an Alcoholic

Young woman lying on a pebble beach The process of grief is not only about losing a loved one to death. You can grieve any perceived loss in your life. A job, a relationship, and opportunity, a house……an addiction. Yes, it is true alcoholics can and many do, go through the grieving process when it comes time to say goodbye to the active alcoholic life.

Alcoholics develop a true relationship with their booze. Their drinking becomes something they look forward to, they think about and they carefully plan to do. Their alcohol is their confidant, their best friend and is always available. Many alcoholics reach a point in their life where the alcohol is the only thing they believe they can depend or rely on. It is through the progression of the disease that this relationship turns abusive and it is time to say goodbye. Alcohol eventually turns and betrays the alcoholic no longer giving them the promises they once believed. The unfortunate part is that for some that day does not ever come and they end up dying at the hands of the disease, leaving all of their loved ones to do the grieving.

There are five stages of grief, each necessary to ultimately get to a place where the loss is not so much forgotten, but rather better understood and accepted. If you examine these stages, you can see how they can apply to the relationship between the alcoholic and their alcohol.

DENIAL – During this stage the alcoholic simply lives in their own fantasy world –“I don’t think there is a problem, so there is not a problem”. This stage is where the alcoholic hangs onto to the belief that their relationship has not changed at all and therefor no changes need to be made. They presents as though those around them are overreacting and creating the problem rather than examining their own behavior and its impact on others. During this stage most alcoholics will seek only those who will join them in their denial. Those who try to break through, become the enemy and are often isolated from the alcoholic. This denial is what protects them from the truth.

ANGER – During this stage the alcoholic does experience anger. Anger at those who are trying to get in between their relationship with alcohol and anger AT alcohol for turning on them. At this point there is no insight into what the alcohol is doing to them or others. They see themselves as victims of others intrusiveness and judgment. This anger is usually targeted at those closest to the alcoholic, those that are trying to help.

BARAGAINING – During this phase the alcoholic is determined to prove everyone wrong. They come up with “ideas” and “plans” and “rules”:

No drinking before 7”

I will only drink on weekends”

It’s the tequila, I cannot drink tequila”

If you would drink with me this would not be a problem”

I can have a few glasses of wine but no hard alcohol” and so on and so on.

This is the stage where the fear that they may have to end the relationship takes over and they try to do anything they can to “make it work” and delay the inevitable.

DEPRESSION – During this stage the truth may begin to set in they have tried all their new rules and plans and nothing has worked. The alcoholic continues to drink and things continues to worsen. They become despondent and saddened at the prospect of having to stop drinking

ACCEPTANCE – During this stage the alcoholic may begin to seek outside help. Go to a therapist or attend AA, begin to identify themselves as an alcoholic, share the truth about this abusive relationship with others in their life. This is the stage where the alcoholic finally acknowledges out loud what is really going on.

But just like any other grieving this is not a linear process. Some can start off in depression only to find themselves in denial days later. There could have been a point where the alcoholic seemed as though they were in acceptance only to discover they go back to bargaining two weeks later. This is a fluid process that has many ups and downs just as grieving anything would.

The hope is not so much that the grieving ends, as I believe it never truly does, but that it changes and perhaps as time goes on and the alcoholic does enter into recovery and stays sober for a consistent amount of time. This is often referred to a “Maintenance” in grieving. They may still grieve the loss, but it would be grieving what they believed the relationship once was long ago, not what it had become at the end.