By Haley Kennedy, Recovery Coach – 10.22.2021 –
Grief and loss are an inevitable part of life; but it seems to me that those of us affected by the disease of addiction, unfortunately, experience it in excess. And that sort of obstacle can certainly put someone’s recovery at risk. We might find ourselves thinking of, or falling back on old habits of using to cope with the overwhelming feelings associated with loss… But recovery has gifted us plenty of other tools, resources, and supports to help maintain our recovery while we work through them.
During active addiction, substances are a way to “cope with” challenging stressors, such as grief and loss — an attempt to numb uncomfortable feelings. Meaning we don’t “cope with” anything, just simply stuff it and cover it up, risking the chance of that unresolved grief resurfacing later in life and causing serious issues.
There is no single or “correct” way to grieve and coming to terms with loss is different for every person. So, how do we process loss in a healthy way…
Are you familiar with the five stages of grief? These stages are how people typically identify and cope with the sorrow associated with loss. Walking through this process helps us manage any complicated feelings or thoughts and learn how to live with it in a healthy way.
(Keep in mind that they are not stops on some linear timeline; not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order.)
1. Denial & Isolation — This natural defense mechanism occurs when we’re not ready to acknowledge loss, and we can reject the idea that it is even true. In turn, we may isolate ourselves in hopes of avoiding reminders of the truth. But it does allow us to process bad news slowly as the healing process begins.
2. Anger — When it’s no longer possible to live in denial, it’s common to become frustrated and angry. We might feel like something extremely unfair has happened to us and wonder what we did to deserve it. We might even direct that anger at friends and family, even though they aren’t at fault in any way. But our anger is genuine, and it’s important to acknowledge it. If we attempt to control or suppress it, it can threaten our hard-won recovery and inner peace and extend the grieving period. Anger will fade in time and getting the feelings out will ultimately help us heal.
3. Bargaining — This stage is an attempt to regain some sort of normality; we seek a sense of control in the face of helplessness. We might seek to somehow change the circumstances of the situation. For example, trying to negotiate with God to keep someone alive. We’re attempting to postpone the sadness by imagining “what if” scenarios, like how we tried to postpone feelings with substances.
4. Depression — This is when we start to feel the full weight of our sadness. We can no longer deny the situation, and it becomes clear that bargaining isn’t an option. One might feel depressed throughout the entire grieving process, the sadness might come in waves, or the feelings can hit like a ton of bricks. And knowing we tend to struggle with emotions to begin with, it is important to be aware that sadness is SUPPOSED to accompany loss.
5. Acceptance — Although we might still feel sadness, regret, or anger at this stage, we are coming to terms with the new reality. With time, we gain insight, we learn to accept, and we see that things are looking up.
If we try to “cope” with a loss by using, we might never fully experience all or any of these steps, making it difficult or nearly impossible to accept and overcome the pain of the loss. These are things we can do throughout the grieving process to stay healthy and maintain our recovery —
– Take care of yourself. Grief is exhausting. So be sure to get enough rest and provide your body with fuel by avoiding foods high in carbs and sugar.
– Reach out to your people… even when you don’t feel like it. Seek out the people who understand, as spending time with folks who don’t “get it” is likely to be counterproductive.
– Avoid triggers that may lead to a lapse. Try not to spend time in places, or with people/things that make you uncomfortable or expose you to substances.
– Be aware of special dates. Anniversaries, birthdays and holidays can be especially difficult. Don’t isolate yourself; plan to do something special with family and friends or schedule a counseling session.
– Read books that will inspire you and provide greater insight into 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, or just turn on your favorite music and dance.
– Try to give back to others. By helping others, you will feel better and more positive about life.
– Stick to your regular recovery program, ESPECIALLY when you don’t feel like it. Attend your Twelve-Step or peer support meetings, talk to your therapist, or engage in YOUR chosen path to recovery. And don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it.
The pain and sadness of grief can be overwhelming and it’s normal to feel weak and fragile, particularly when coupled with recovery. You may be tempted to turn to substances to ease the pain… but in the end, using will only extend the grieving process.
Remind yourself that you’re not new to discomfort or sadness or grief… Remind yourself of the hard work and dedication it takes to walk through un-comfortability and achieve recovery, and that you have the tools, resources and support to keep it.