What is grief?
Grief is a normal response to loss. Feelings of grief may range from sadness to intense pain, depending on the severity of the loss. You may experience grief that doesn’t last long and is tolerable. Or you may feel a deeper, longer-term pain akin to clinical depression. You may need professional care to help cope with intense grief and the resulting depression.
People experience the emotion of grief for many reasons. It could be due to the death of a loved one or the loss of a job or, for an addict, it could be a variety of losses due to chemical use: broken marriages, strained relationships with children, and so on. Even stopping the use of chemicals can cause loss and grief.
What are the stages of grief?
The typical stages are denial and anger followed by bargaining, sadness or depression, and finally acceptance. When you begin recovery, you give up something around which your life has revolved for a long time. Suddenly you find yourself facing the world without the substance, without a way of life you’ve depended on to numb your pain. You may also have other losses due to your substance use disorder. Like many alcoholics and addicts, you may have sacrificed everything for your addiction: family, friends, job, self-esteem.
Classic Stages of Grief during Recovery
1. Denial and anger: You don’t want to admit powerlessness and you are angry at having to say good-bye to your chemical and your old behaviors.
2. Bargaining: Instead of working hard, you try to bargain for recovery by making promises to use or drink less, behave better, go to church more, and so on.
3. Sadness: You feel depressed because you can’t cope with the drug and you can’t cope without it.
4. Acceptance: You accept the reality of your addiction—you can’t have just one. You are powerless against this disease.
What problems might you have with unresolved grief?
A sense of loss can last a long time; being told by others to “get over it” can be dangerous advice. Or you may be in denial, telling yourself that you are past the grief. Sometimes we push our grief down deep inside, but if we do it may rise at unexpected moments. An anniversary, a place, a person, a memory, an article of clothing—almost anything can trigger grief. If grief catches you by surprise, it could overwhelm you and trigger a relapse.
During recovery, emotions that you haven’t felt for years sometimes come to the surface. This is a time to deal with neglected grief and a chance to acknowledge current losses as well as old ones you never faced.
How can you deal with the losses that are not caused by your addiction?
People coping with specific losses such as the death of a child, a suicide, or loss of family through divorce—and survivors of trauma and victimization—often benefit by talking to others who have faced similar losses.
The grief process isn’t necessarily a smooth one. You won’t heal the feelings once and be done with them. All of the work you do in the Twelve Step program of recovery will contribute in some way to lessening your grief and eventually letting go of it.
Recovery is an opportunity to reflect on your own loss, face it, and fully accept that grief is not a bad emotion. Grief can teach you how great your capacity to love is.
Recovery Action Step
Grieving is common in early recovery. You may have suppressed your grief over the loss of a child, spouse, partner, parent, or other relationship. Grief is a process that needs to be faced and completed.
1. List some significant losses in your life.
2. Which have been the most painful?
3. Do these losses still affect your life today?
4. How can you start to accept these losses? Discuss these feelings with others in recovery to gain more insight.
Where can you get help in dealing with grief?
If you are facing specific losses, look for a group that addresses that kind of loss. You will find immediate solace by talking to those who know what you’ve experienced. If your grief is centered on the loss of the chemical in your life, participate heartily in Twelve Step recovery groups. There you will find many others who cope with that loss every day.
Rituals, such as writing letters, can help you handle grief. Write to those with whom you have unfinished business, whether these people are living or dead. Talk out your grief on paper. By reflecting on your own loss, you will learn and begin to heal.
Gift From Within
For survivors of trauma and victimization, this international nonprofit offers articles on coping with trauma and post-traumatic stress and lists of support groups, conferences, and retreats.