Professor emeritus Dr. Toni Miles says her work truly began when she retired from the University of Georgia in 2021.
She said she had wanted for nearly a decade to study the injurious effects of bereavement on a community or a large group of people.
“I’ve been looking for ways to measure it,” she said. “We can tell how many people die, but we don’t know who they’re connected to. That’s one way of thinking about it.”
Miles asked a number of data collection agencies such as the Department of Community Health to include a survey question about how people are coping with grief.
“You lost somebody; you were the one who’s left behind,” she said. “Someone else has died in your orbit and you’re still alive and dealing with that.”
One way people cope is alcohol.
Miles considers excessive alcohol use a public health issue, and she said she hopes to find a perspective by which society could learn to better protect people from the negative health effects of bereavement.
“So binge drinking is one of those things public health community agrees is a problem,” Miles said. “But … it’s not studied well.”
She defined binge drinking as four drinks in an hour for women or five drinks an hour for men. Researchers are seeing underage and young adult drinkers engage in binge drinking whereas older adults are more likely just to be chronically drunk, Miles said.
The new study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, is the first time bereavement and its association with binge drinking has been examined among adults in Georgia. Of the roughly 1.7 million people in Georgia, Miles said about 600,000 would fall into the binge drinker category.
This is one way people can die of a broken heart, Miles said.
When one metaphorically drowns their grief in alcohol, they damage their physical bodies.
“Your own health can be destabilized by that surge of adrenaline you get,” Miles said. “You can have a stroke. That’s a form of a broken heart. People kill themselves.”
There are many ways that bereavement will lead to your own death, she said, and this is commonly seen among caregivers and older adults with dementia.
Caregivers are particularly affected by bereavement
Dr. Jennifer Olsen, CEO of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers, said the organization works with Miles because RCI values research that aims to support bereaved caregivers.
When an individual goes from a place of being completely enveloped in the role of caring for someone and then have that sudden life change, or maybe not so sudden change, where they’re now in this former caregiver role.
“They’ve lost maybe parts of their identity or things that were so critical to how they viewed themselves,” Olsen said. “When we lose someone that isn’t just something that ends as soon as that loss happens, but there is a long tail of impacts.”
Olsen recognized that former first lady Carter, the institute’s namesake and founder, often said there are four kinds of caregiver roles: those who have been caregivers; those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.
“Well, if that’s the case, what can we look at and how can we support individuals as their journey changes from present caregiver to past caregiver?” Olsen said.
Olsen said RCI is interested in the context in which a bereaved person uses or misuses addictive substances, and what additional mental health needs should be addressed.
“We think there’s a more broad need for recognizing that these physical and mental health impacts of providing care are currently not recognized across all of the federal government or even in state governments, ” she said. “You know, there’s not an Office of Caregiver Health that’s looking at these health impacts and figuring out where policy, program, and resources should be put, whether that’s for payment or for additional mental health supports and counseling for this population.”
Former caregivers can show support for policy change by showing up and advocating at the state capitol, Olsen said.
Funding more research and more community access to mental and behavioral health is necessary, Miles said.
“It’s, again, one of those things because we don’t want to talk about it, we don’t want to think about it,” Miles said. “We just keep replicating this cycle of illness.”
The data used in Miles’ research come from the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“So we’re the only state in the nation that has actually measured bereavement before the pandemic,” she said.
This is especially concerning when we consider how many children lost parents, grandparents, and friends since 2020.
Miles said there is little known about what happens to bereaved minors.
“We don’t know what happens to them,” Miles said. “They disappear.”
Part of the problem for kids grieving the loss of a parent or caretaker is the accompanying loss of support, both financial and emotional. Many bereaved children feel anxious and angry.
“The other thing you should understand about grief, it’s not just sadness,” Miles said.
This story comes to Rough Draft Atlanta through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.