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Grief and Loss in Recovery: How to Protect Your Sobriety When You’re Hurting

grief and loss in recovery While recovery promises (and provides us with) a fresh start, it doesn’t shield us from all of the negative aspects of life. At some point, we’ll all experience the loss of someone close to us, whether it’s a friend, spouse, parent, or child. It’s important to know how to cope with the surge of emotions (grief) and challenges that come along with the death of a loved one. Protect your hard-earned recovery by preparing yourself and reacting appropriately when times are hard.  

What is Grief?

Many people will base their understanding of grief on Swedish psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What they overlook is that Kübler-Ross wasn’t talking about the death of others, rather, she sought to understand the process of accepting one’s own mortality in the context of terminal illness. The process of bereavement – mourning a death – is actually much more nuanced than five neat stages lead us to believe. Researcher Sidney Zisook instead points to four main components of grief:

  • Separation Distress – feelings like sadness, pain, and anxiety.
  • Traumatic Distress – feelings of disbelief, shock, and efforts to avoid the spike of emotions that comes along with intrusions.
  • Guilt, regret, and remorse.
  • Social withdrawal, elimination of structure or activities, difficulty sleeping, and low energy.

If left untreated, it’s possible to develop a bereavement disorder called complicated grief. This is characterized by intense sorrow, rumination, and focus dedicated to the death of a loved one. The bitterness of the loss couples with a feeling that life holds no meaning, which can result in difficulty maintaining normal routines and increased isolation. It’s easy to see how these feelings could jeopardize recovery, especially if you’re in the early days of sobriety.  

Grief and Relapse

Often, substance use disorders develop as a response to negative life circumstances. They can serve as a kind of escapism, and eventually become one’s coping mechanism of choice. In treatment, you’ll learn different ways of handling problems as they arise, but the area of loss can be a specifically difficult one to overcome. Grief is one of the leading causes of addiction and is also a contributing factor for relapse. If we hide these intense emotions and never deal with them, the pain cannot heal and will find a way to express itself. It’s not uncommon to see people replacing a person with a substance, even though no one plans on doing this. It can feel like the only way to ease the pain and loneliness associated with the death of a loved one. Fortunately, relapse is completely preventable, provided that the right measures are taken to cope with negative life events.  

How to Handle Loss in Recovery

When someone close to you passes away, it’s normal to grieve them. Be sure to give yourself permission to mourn their loss, without judging your feelings or bottling them up. It can be helpful to spend time with trusted friends and family, even when you feel like isolating yourself. Connect with them and busy yourself with small activities that keep you on track: getting dressed and leaving the house are important to do, even when they feel impossible, and social support can make all the difference in your mood. Be sure to stick with your treatment plan, even if you don’t feel like it. Talking with a therapist and attending 12-Step meetings keep you in your routine and can be especially beneficial throughout the grieving process. The things that helped you get through addiction can also carry you through this loss. While you’re feeling vulnerable during this mourning period, make an effort to avoid exposure to potential triggers. This isn’t the best time to test yourself. Don’t spend time with negative people or go to venues where alcohol or drugs are freely available. Instead, shore yourself up with positive influences and new goals. Above all else, we encourage you to ask for help. If you feel temptation to relapse or are simply unable to manage day-to-day life, it’s time to reach out to friends, family, and professionals. Some people even elect to return to treatment at this stage. Recognize your limits and don’t overexert yourself, and don’t be too proud to lean on others. They’ll be glad to step in and make things easier on you during this difficult time.  

Working Towards Lasting Recovery

If you’ve experienced a loss, you don’t have to lose your sobriety, too. Segue Recovery Support bridges the gap from treatment to independence, ensuring that your recovery can stand the trials and tribulations of life. Our sober coaching program and other unique offerings can build you up when times are tough. We encourage you to contact us today, either by calling 833-485-0789 or by completing our fully confidential contact form.