Problematic Coping Mechanisms

Grief sometimes leads to overuse of alcohol and other drugs, especially if there has been dependence on them in the past. Along with other compulsive behaviour, such as smoking, gambling, over-eating, over-working or endlessly watching TV, this can be a way of avoiding dealing with overwhelming feelings and difficult issues.

While drugs, like alcohol, sometimes provide short-term relief such as falling asleep, they are more likely to cause wakefulness and worsen fatigue, possibly causing you to release anger and frustration on those closest to you. Antidepressants, although sometimes helpful in the short term, can cause similar problems, temporarily masking grief, but in reality prolonging it in the long term.

When these forms of behaviour are used as ways of coping, conflicts can arise, with the risks of disrupting family life or threatening financial security. When self-medicating, it’s easy to deceive yourself and your partner about their impact.

“I’m very grateful to the drugs and the booze as it was the only way that prevented me killing myself or other people. It was the only thing that gave me any sort of relief from the internal grief that I felt. The only problem was that the grief was still there when I woke up and what ended up happening was that I took a drug, then the drug took a drug, then it was a long time before I could get back. Some never do.” (Bill)

“My husband drinks most nights and it is a coping mechanism. Alcohol has cost us a lot. I avoided alcohol on the first anniversary as alcohol isn’t my relaxer – it is my ‘number’ (what numbs the pain) and if I drink I can get angry and yell at the kids.” (Fiona)

“My husband drank a lot and couldn’t sleep. Alcohol blotted out the world.” (Ally)

It is important not to be judgemental. Your partner has not necessarily chosen this behaviour. Habits and addictions, as ways of coping, are difficult to change when under stress. It is better to try to reduce tension by negotiating tentative agreements that each can change if necessary. For example, one of you could agree to cut down drinking if the other watches less TV or stays at home more. Try to understand what is going on between you and your partner. You may need to think not only about the grief but also issues which can compound it, such as family loyalties, power battles and money problems. These are all issues which can benefit from counselling.

This article was prepared using extracts from When Relationships Hurt, Too.1 The full text is available online or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss Services on 1300 308 307 for a printed version.

Last reviewed: 24/10/21