When lost in the depths of grief it can seem impossible to go on, to get through another day let alone the next hour. Even the next five minutes. Somehow we have to push through, to keep going, to manage. We have to cope. Somehow.

There are many things we can do to cope and some are healthy while others are not. Like with habits, bad coping can be much less effort than good coping. It may even bring a moment of feeling good, albeit short-lived. Grief work is one of the hardest things you will ever have to do in life and those emotions can be overwhelming and frightening. It is no wonder that many people will do almost anything to avoid facing their grief.

Society places a lot of pressure on families impacted by a workplace tragedy. Our mainstream culture is one that is grief and death avoidant. There is an expectation for you to be happy again, to ‘get over it’, to return to being your ‘normal’ self. It does feel good to laugh again, to remember earlier days when life was different and sometimes substances or behaviours seem to bring that relief. However the progression from occasional recreational use of substances or activities as a reward or social time through to more frequent use to ‘take the edge off’ can soon lead to a loss of choice as the desire becomes a compulsion.

Addictions take many forms and some may surprise you. They can be a substance, like alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, prescription medications or caffeine. Addictions can also be an activity, such as exercise, gambling, sex, self-harm, food, shopping, work, the internet and yes, even Facebook. The end result is the same, short-term pleasure that provides an escape from the pain. Over time it becomes a need not a want. The urge for the activity or substance becomes more and more powerful as a way to not have to face what is happening. It will interfere with their ability to look after ordinary responsibilities. Often the person is not truly aware that a line has been crossed. That they have become an addict.

Considering that the addict may not be aware of their addiction, family members may not realize it either. Signs of addiction vary greatly and can be physical, behavioural or psychological. They may include changes in behaviour, relationship difficulties, challenges with daily functions, weight gain or loss, sleep difficulties, isolation, mood swings, unusual need for money or lack of concern for personal appearance and hygiene.

Because addiction is considered a taboo subject it is still not talked about openly and is a cause of shame and guilt for both the addict and their family. This needs to change. We need to be able to talk about it. The more you know the better you can understand.

Ultimately, the only person who can change and stop the addictive behaviours is the addict themselves. They need to recognize what they are doing and make a choice. Not family, friends or professionals can force this on anyone. If the addict doesn’t believe that there is a problem then change will not happen. Truly they are the only one who can cure themselves.

For families who are already grieving, dealing with addictions is like another loss and complicates relationships and the ability to heal from the initial loss. And that just delays healing. Addictions can tear apart a family already reeling.

Our Volunteer Family Guides are not trained counsellors meant to deal with addiction issues. They are peers who are able to offer a compassionate ear and willing to stay in the ‘messy places’ with you to talk and explore those strong and sometimes scary emotions. Those feelings are overwhelming but less so with a companion who gets it. (If you’d like to be paired with a Volunteer Family Guide, contact me at kkennington@threadsoflife.ca).

But there may be times when having someone to listen is not enough, when further support or intervention is needed. Fortunately there is help available. Making that ask may be the first step to recovery.

This article was originally published in Threads newsletter, Spring 2017.

Kate Kennington

Kate Kennington

Kate Kennington is the Family Support Manager for Threads of Life. With a background in volunteer management and event planning, Kate oversees the peer support program of Volunteer Family Guides and is a family member herself.
Kate Kennington

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