Family death five years ago

Dear Alice,

I am a generally happy graduate student here, with family nearby and good friends. However, I wanted to ask if maybe I should try counseling. When I was in my late teens, I had a traumatic family experience (death of a family member). Some months later I entered college, and promptly began to drink like a fish. I don't really know, to this day, how much of it was for fun and companionship and whatever, and how much was to dull the pain of recent events at home. Anyway, I stopped drinking the next year, and have since drunk alcohol with no signs (to me) that I had an alcoholism problem, which was often suggested to me that first year of college.

Now, I am in school, doing what I want, and involved for the last two years with a man I love very much, and who loves me. We are headed for long-term commitment, but I am afraid of wrecking it, because I often feel like I am freaking out and will sometimes cry and become very, very depressed, I think over these events I have mentioned. My guess, unfortunately, is that I have a tendency for melodrama and depression anyway. In which case, I would just try to rein my emotions in and get control of myself. I need some reassurance, I guess.

— Emotion-laden

Dear Emotion-laden,

It's wonderful that you're doing what you love, are generally happy, and in a relationship with a supportive partner who loves you. However, you also expressed some fears about “wrecking” your relationship due to your emotional responses and feeling depressed. Getting to the source of these emotional outbursts is a great step to alleviating some of these worries. It's very possible that these bouts of depression and overwhelming emotions are related to the loss of your loved one. Though a few years have now passed since the death of your family member, the effects of a tragic loss can still be felt years later, especially if the loss hasn’t been adequately grieved in a healthy way.

While loss is a natural part of life, losing a loved one can still be terribly overwhelming and devastating, especially if the loss is sudden and unexpected. Grief can cause a range of emotions to crop up, which can include denial, disbelief, confusion, shock, sadness, yearning, anger, humiliation, despair, and guilt. All of these feelings can be natural and normal, and though they may be intense and overwhelming in the moment, they’re not indicative of mental instability on their own. Time can fade or heal these emotional wounds for some, but for others, it can take longer to process and cope with death. It’s good to know that there is no “normal” or “correct” amount of time that it takes to grieve a loss. It’s key to allow oneself to grieve for as long as necessary in order to fully process all the emotions that arise. 

There are plenty of steps a person can take in order to ease the grieving process and cope in a healthy way. If you have a solid support system, like your partner, you can try talking about the death in order to better understand the loss and remember the person who passed. Eating healthy foods, being active, and getting enough sleep are also great ways to maintain both your physical and emotional health, as grief can impact the body as much as the mind. Celebrating the life of the loved one you lost can also help to ease the pain of their passing.

While there is no one correct way you should feel about or cope with loss, there are certain coping mechanisms that may not help you move on or process your grief. You may experience the impulse to avoid, ignore, or even deny the death in order to distance yourself from the pain that arises from this loss. However, this will often only delay the grieving process, causing grief to linger and create greater emotional distress in the future which may even lead to physical illness.

You mentioned that you suspect the excessive drinking in your first year of college might’ve been an attempt to “dull the pain” of the death of your family member. Some people turn to alcohol in an attempt to avoid dealing with the pain of loss or experiencing grief altogether. In fact, studies have found a correlation between bereavement and alcohol use, as those grieving loss are more vulnerable to engaging in higher risk alcohol consumption to numb the pain of their loss. However, self-medicating with any substance, including alcohol, can't erase this pain for good, and since alcohol acts as a depressant in the body, it can actually magnify negative emotions and make the grieving process more difficult. 

You also expressed concerns that your bouts of depression might negatively affect your relationship. Studies have found that people who struggle with depression sometimes have a harder time maintaining a romantic relationship, as it can cause side effects such as impaired social skills, diminished sexual interest, and reduced emotional disclosure. As a result, their partner may begin to experience depression themselves, too. Couples in which one or both partners are experiencing depression may also struggle with sexual intimacy due to a change of libido, which can be caused by a depressive episode or certain antidepressants. 

When it comes to managing both the grief and the feelings of depression, working with someone externally may help. Someone such as a mental health professional may be able to help provide therapy, support, and if it's relevant, any sort of diagnoses or medications. These aren't feelings you need to manage on your own, and seeking out additional support may help you move through the grief. If you're not sure where to find a mental health professional, the Go Ask Alice! Q&A Finding low-cost counseling may be a helpful place to start. 

With hope that insight and support will offer you strength and healing,

Last updated Jan 28, 2022
Originally published Nov 01, 1993

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