Your Ultimate Guide to Grieving in Recovery

Handling the grief of losing a loved one while in recoveryEven while we’re in recovery, life around us continues to move, change and grow. We have control over what we’re doing regarding our nutrition, the way we participate in 12-Step meetings, the thoughts we attribute importance to and so much more, but we don’t have control over what happens around us. Sometimes we’re devastatingly shocked to find out that a loved one has passed – and that’s when grief settles in. According to the Mindfulness & Grief Training Institute, grief is defined as,

“The uncontrollable and natural reaction to the death of someone to whom you feel connected or attached.”

The relationship you had with this person could have been a secure attachment (healthy, loving, trustworthy, etc.) or an insecure attachment (unpredictable, rocky, etc.), but either way, it’s someone you loved – and that’s incredibly difficult to move on from. If you’ve recently experienced the death of a loved one, know that you’re not alone – and while in addiction recovery, there are steps you can take to heal from pain in the best way possible while not jeopardizing your recovery goals.

Grief and Addiction Recovery

Grief can be particularly challenging for a person to work through in recovery, because their previous response to devastating circumstances such as these may have been to rely upon substances like alcohol or other drugs. In 2017, an individual shared their story of how their brother passed away from alcohol-related causes, and how the pain they felt became masked as they abused substances themselves after his death. Here is an excerpt from their story:

“I was at work when they made the decision to cut off his life support…The guilt affected me for a long time afterwards. I resigned from my job. I spent most nights out drinking with friends. I felt like I was lost. One night I drank too much and found myself vomiting in a toilet wondering if this had been what his life was like.”

It’s not uncommon to want to find something to ease the pain you’re experiencing. Many people want to numb that feeling of heartbreak, of confusion, of loneliness – and while substances may seem to be the answer for this, you have to remind yourself of what you’re here for – of what you’re trying to do with your life. Mary Anne Cohen, a writer for The Fix, explained in 2018 the concept of “frozen grief” – which means to stay stuck in this cycle of pain and grief without having moved on or having healed from it. If we don’t deal with the pain of our loss effectively, the hurt – the sadness, the anger, the guilt – it all becomes trapped within us. We suppress it, and that’s when we find ourselves in such a vulnerable state that relapse is of high risk.

The Stages of Grief

Rather than turn to previous patterns of substance abuse to numb the pain, choose to feel your emotions. Give yourself time to cry, to feel angry, to be sad that the person you love is no longer here with you. A 2017 study published in the journal Psychodynamic Psychiatry explained that the grieving process is much like any process of change. There are essentially 5 stages:

Stage 1: Denial and Isolation

We can’t believe that this tragic event has happened. We’re so shocked that we start to believe that life has no meaning anymore. We feel empty, hopeless and in denial of our true feelings.

Stage 2: Anger

As the reality of our lives begin to emerge, we’re hit at one of our most vulnerable parts – and that’s when we become angry. We’re not ready to feel the pain, so we’d rather place blame – at God or another Higher Power, at the Universe, at someone else, at ourselves – we’d rather stay focused on the negative energy of anger because we don’t want to face the pain that comes with the reality.

Stage 3: Bargaining

At this stage, we’re starting to contemplate the “what ifs”. We want to know what could have happened if we did something differently, or if someone else did something differently, etc. We may attempt to plead with a Higher Power that if only we could change something about ourselves, that our loved one may come back.

Stage 4: Depression

We’re mourning now, and we’re dealing with the practical implications of this loss – such as funeral arrangements, seeing family again, etc. – along with more private implications, such as the memories that we have of our loved one.

Stage 5: Acceptance

Not everyone reaches this stage, but for those who do, it’s marked by a period of calmness. A person has accepted that their loved one’s time to pass has come, and they’re able to start focusing on their lives again. This doesn’t mean that they’re happy about their loved one’s passing or that they’ve forgotten them, but rather they’re cherishing the moments they had as a precious gift they were able to experience.

In addition to letting yourself feel these emotions, rely on the support that you have around you while in treatment. Speak to your therapist, your sponsor and others around you who love and care about you. You’re not alone – all you need to focus on during this time is healing and self-care.

Cumberland Heights is a nonprofit alcohol and drug-addiction treatment center located on the banks of the Cumberland river in Nashville, Tennessee. On a sprawling 177-acre campus, we are made up of 2 12-Step immersion campuses, 12 outpatient recovery centers and 4 sober living homes. We believe that each person has a unique story to tell – and that’s why we always put the patient first.