There is no “right” way to grieve when you have lost someone to alcohol harm. Sadly though, 2020 saw an increase in deaths linked to alcohol right across England, Wales and Scotland. This has left thousands of families and communities grieving for someone they loved. In this blog, Gill Harmon, Virtual Family Support Practitioner at Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs, takes a look at how losing someone to alcohol harm can affect bereavement and how seeking professional support may be beneficial to those who have experienced loss.
Organisations that may be able to offer support to those who are bereaved are listed at the end of this article.
I work for Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs (Scottish Families) providing support to families, including through our Bereavement Support Service. I speak with many family members who are bereaved as a result of alcohol harm.
I recently spoke with Annette Cooper, a counsellor who provides bereavement counselling on behalf of our organisation. I wanted to get her perspective on bereavement as a result of alcohol harm. Is there a difference in the grieving process? Do people who are bereaved as a result of alcohol harm experience grief differently?
Annette explained that grief is a natural reaction to loss. At various times in our lives, we will all experience bereavement, as unfortunately, it is a fact of life. Where someone has been bereaved as a result of alcohol harm they may have had a very different relationship with their loved one. This in turn can impact the grieving process.
One difference can be that people have already grieved for their loved one or part of the relationship before their loved one passed away. There can be a feeling that they knew it was going to happen due to the damage alcohol was causing to their loved one’s health. The feeling of loss can be experienced for many years as people’s relationships change and adapt due to alcohol use. While their loved one was alive the family member may have experienced feelings of despair or anger as they felt that their loved one was not making positive changes in their life.
When people are referred to Scottish Families’ Bereavement Support Service, we have an initial call that explains more about counselling. During these calls, people often speak about feelings of guilt as they feel that they could have done more to make their loved one change. Often during these calls, I explain a little about addiction and help the person see that they could not change what they were not in control of.
Being bereaved as a result of alcohol harm can also mean that people have lost their identity. For some time their loved one’s recovery may have been the focus of their own life and may have brought purpose or meaning to their life. This loss of identity may be something that is not recognised by people around them.
Annette explained that society puts across an expectation that people should quickly “get better” following on from a bereavement. When someone loses a loved one as a result of addiction their grief can be more complicated. They may experience disenfranchised grief, where their grieving process does not fit into society’s norm. Disenfranchised grief can cause isolation, guilt and shame. These feelings are often similar to the feelings caused by the stigma that people felt when their loved one was alive.
During the Bereavement Support calls that I carry out, I help explain a little about counselling. Sometimes people are not aware of what counselling may entail or have the image in their head of lying on a couch while speaking to a therapist. I explain that counselling alone cannot take the pain away of losing their loved one, it can help them move forward while living alongside the loss. I recently heard someone explain that people do not move on from losing someone, instead, they can move forward and the two are very separate ideas.
Annette explained that counselling can help a person to move forward. Bereavement counselling involves the counsellor meeting the client where they are, offering support and validating their feelings. She explained that often people choose to come to counselling because something is limiting their life and they may be having difficulty in accepting that their loved one is no longer here.
Counselling can offer a place of safety to explore the relationship. It can help people to explore their feelings and emotions by the counsellor being alongside the person and inviting them to talk about a feeling, emotion or belief that they have. If ready, the counsellor can invite the person to explore this further. People may express a feeling of anger however the true feeling that they have is guilt or shame. Counselling can help people to understand the root of their feelings and explore these.
For anyone who has experienced bereavement as a result of alcohol harm and as a result of this is finding it difficult to move forward, I would urge you to get in touch for Bereavement Support. Annette explained that even one session of counselling to validate your feelings can help you begin to move forward.
At Scottish Families, we do not think there is ever a wrong time for counselling. No matter how much time has passed since the bereavement and accessing the service your feelings are valid and counselling can help you to make sense of these. We recognise that nothing can take the pain away however we can help you live alongside grief and the feelings of loss that you experience.
Scottish Families have a Bereavement Support Service that offers 6 counselling sessions to families who have lost a loved one where alcohol or drug use featured in their life. Alcohol or drug use do not need to be the cause of death.
Written by Gill Harmon
If you need further support or information about bereavement and grief, we have listed some other organisations below who might be able to help you.
The UK’s signposting website for the bereaved. They can help you find bereavement services and counselling in your area.
Information and support for anyone bereaved through drug or alcohol use.
Cruse provide practical information, advice and signposting on the many issues and procedures that face us after the death of someone close. They have a telephone helpline (0808 808 1677) and webchat on their website.
Charity run by the bereaved, helping all those suffering grief in the UK. Find support services and information on their website.
If you are worried about your own or someone else’s drinking, there is help available.
Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. Calls are free and confidential. Call 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9.00am to 8.00pm, weekends 11.00am to 4.00pm).
More information about organisations which offer help and support can be found on our support page.
This blog was published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alcohol Health Alliance or its members.