Grief in Recovery: Coping with Sadness and Loss

Giving up an addiction is the beginning of a brand new, healthier life, but often, those great benefits are balanced with tremendous feelings of sadness and loss.

It’s painful, but grief that occurs during recovery should be acknowledged. Otherwise, unpleasant feelings can drag you down into depression and anxiety and can serve as triggers to relapse.

Giving up Old, Familiar Friends

Sobriety means making a lot of big changes, and giving up alcohol and drugs is only the beginning. Getting sober also means giving up familiar places and old friends that shared the same lifestyle. Everything feels uncertain and frightening.

For most people in recovery, saying goodbye to drugs or alcohol is like losing a best friend. Even while addiction was destroying your life, that constant companion was always there for you. It comforted you and made it easier to cope when life became too difficult.

Losing a Loved One: Dealing with Death and Loss During Recovery

Loss of a friend or family member is painful any time, but the difficulty is compounded when the loss occurs while you’re recovering from addiction, especially during the first weeks and months after treatment ends.

Sometimes, people suppress grief for years or even decades, coping by numbing themselves with drugs or alcohol. Unacknowledged grief is powerful, but it’s never too late to work through a lifetime of intense loss and heartbreak.

The Five Stages of Grief

There is no single way to grieve, and coming to terms with loss is different for every person. However, the five stages of grief, formulated by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross in the 1960s, offers a set of emotional stages that most people experience when confronting a major loss.

Although the five stages were initially intended to help people work through the process of grieving for a lost loved one, they are helpful for understanding any loss, including saying goodbye to drugs and alcohol.

The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Denial: This natural defense mechanism occurs when people aren’t ready to acknowledge loss or impending death. Denial allows us to process bad news slowly so the healing process can begin.

A person may seek a “second opinion” from several different doctors, or they convince themselves that the lab made a mistake. An addicted person might deny the existence of an addiction, or make jokes about the severity of the problem.

Anger: As denial gradually fades, most people confront feelings of intense anger. You may direct that anger to close friends and family, even though they aren’t at fault in any way. If you believe in a higher power, you may feel rage, abandonment, and betrayal.

Your anger is genuine, and it’s important to acknowledge it. If you attempt to control or suppress the feelings, they can threaten your hard-won inner peace and extend the grieving period. Anger will fade in time, and getting the feelings out will ultimately help you heal.

Bargaining: This stage is an attempt to regain some sort of normality, and it can take many different forms. For example, you may try to convince yourself that you can control your use of drugs and alcohol like a “normal” person. Or, you may try to make a deal with God or your higher power.

Thoughts like, “If you spare my wife, I promise to be a better husband,” are typical. Guilt and self-blame often go hand-in-hand with bargaining. “If only I had spent more time with my Dad,” or “I should have insisted that she see a doctor months ago.”

Depression: It’s common to feel overwhelming sadness when you begin to fully grasp the damage caused by your addiction, or the life-changing impact caused by the death of a loved one. You can no longer deny the situation, and it becomes clear that bargaining isn’t an option.

You may feel depressed throughout the grieving period, or the feelings can hit you like a ton of bricks. This period can be especially difficult if you already struggle with depression.

Acceptance: You may still experience sadness, regret or anger at this final stage of the grieving process, but you are coming to terms with the new reality. As you gain insight, you accept that drugs and alcohol can no longer be part of your life, or you learn how to move on through life without your lost loved one.

Things are looking up, but some days will be easier than others. Continue to reach out to friends and family during this period of adjustment.

Working Your Way through Grief and Loss

Acknowledge your feelings of sadness, anger, regret, and guilt. There’s no way around it. Coping with grief is tough, but if you don’t face the painful emotions, they are bound to come out, and they can take over your life.

Don’t let anybody tell you how to grieve, or that the process should be squeezed into a specific timeframe. Although there are some commonalities, your experience is yours alone, and you must work through the process in your own way.

Here are some ideas that may help:

  • Take care of yourself. Grief is exhausting, so be sure to get enough rest. Eat a healthy diet without a lot of carbs, sugar, or junk food.
  • Reach out to friends and family, even when you don’t feel like it. Meet a friend for a movie or a cup of coffee. Seek out people who understand, as spending time with folks who don’t “get it” is likely to be counterproductive.
  • Avoid triggers that may lead to relapse. Don’t spend time with people who make you uncomfortable. Avoid places and things that expose you to drugs and alcohol.
  • Be aware of special dates, especially during the first couple of years. Anniversaries, birthdays and holidays are especially difficult when you’ve given up drugs or alcohol, or if you’ve lost a loved one. Don’t isolate yourself; plan to do something special with family and friends or schedule a counseling session.
  • Record your feelings in a journal. Read books that will inspire you and provide greater insight on how other people cope with grief and loss.
  • Get moving. If it’s difficult to get motivated, hit the gym or ask a friend to take a walk with you. Turn on your favorite music and dance, as dancing will help you express anger or sadness.
  • Try to give back to others. By helping others, you will feel better and more positive about life.
  • Pray or meditate daily, in a way that works best for you.
  • Stick to your regular treatment program, even when you don’t feel like it. Attend Twelve-Step meetings or other forms of group treatment. Talk to your therapist. Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it.
  • While it’s true that there is no set time frame for grief, it’s important to seek treatment if you’re having trouble accepting the loss. Most people tend to feel better after six to 12 months. Don’t hesitate to reach out if your feelings of grief are too much to handle, or if they aren’t resolving.

Relapse isn’t Inevitable

The pain and sadness of grief feel overwhelming and it’s normal to feel weak and fragile, especially during the early days of recovery. You may be tempted to turn to drugs or alcohol to ease the pain.

When urges become difficult to resist, keep in mind that ultimately, relapse only lengthens the grieving process.

If you do relapse, it doesn’t mean you have failed, or that you’ll return to your previous lifestyle. Admit you have lapsed and seek help to get back on track as soon as possible, even if it means re-entering treatment. If you belong to a Twelve-Step group, this is a good time to reach out to your sponsor.