Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I think my adult son is “medicating” himself with alcohol to try to deal with his brother’s death two years ago. He’s an adult and no one can make him go to his doctor or a counselor. He has a good job that I fear he could jeopardize. I know that there is also guilt involved with his brother’s death. Is there anything we, his family can do?
Sadly, bereavement can sometimes present us with two problems for the price of one: not only does the death of our loved one usher in a profound sense of anguish and grief, but this understandable separation distress can also be compounded by the less than optimal ways that we respond to our pain. Unfortunately, attempting to anesthetize the hurt by turning to alcohol or other drugs is a common response, bringing in its train other losses–financial, relational, health related and occupational. The result can be a downward spiral that affects not only an individual mourner, but an entire family system. Your description of your son’s coping style conjures just such a worrying image.
What can you do in the face of this slippery slope? A starting point may be recognizing that your son isn’t the problem; the problem is the problem. That is, distinguish between the suffering human being who is your son, and the alcohol that is beginning (or continuing) to undermine his life. Adopting a loving, non-blaming, but actively concerned stance can be the crucial first step to take as a family, so that your approach to him is not characterized by anger that merely pulls for a defensive response on his part.
Second, consider the history of his relationship with alcohol, inasmuch as it is unlikely to have begun with his brother’s tragic death. Typically, people cope with loss as they have coped with other major stressors, for better or worse. This means that if your son has long turned to drinking to deal with troubling circumstances or reversals, the course of treatment is also likely to be long-term, rather than a “quick fix.”
Third, pull together as a family, organizing an “intervention” in which people join in a compassionate confrontation of the alcohol abuse, speaking deeply of your love for your son, as well as your concern about the impact of his drinking on him and the rest of you. As each of you is likely to experience your own profound grief about the death of his brother, acknowledge and express this, emphasizing some of the ways you have tried to cope with his death. And then offer concrete alternatives for treating both the alcohol abuse (and participation in an Al-anon group can be quite helpful in this regard) and the grief, seeking a specialist in your area who is familiar with complicated bereavement. In consultation with these resource people, you can better find a way forward through a personal crisis that carries implications for you all.