THE ROLE OF GRIEF IN ADDICTION RECOVERY
By: Michele King
GRIEF IS NOT LIMITED TO DEATH
It is common to think of grief as something that only happens after losing a loved one, but the experience of grief extends far beyond that. People grieve all kinds of losses—their jobs, their homes, their relationships. We also grieve when we lose a way of life or parts of our identities. These fundamental shifts require a period of adjustment—of learning a “new normal”—and that can be extraordinarily painful. It is important to validate grief as a normal, natural, and necessary part of addiction recovery.
Recovery, like grief, is a long and nonlinear process; both will likely bring about painful emotions before the more steady and comforting rewards. Lindsay Kramer, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in San Diego, CA, writes that “comparing the relationship with addiction to a death provides a concrete finality [needed] in order to reach the stage of acceptance.” When a romantic relationship ends, we do not immediately stop loving that person. In fact, we may never stop loving or missing them, and it is helpful to embrace that duality: that we can continue to miss them while also recognizing both the finality and the value in ending the relationship. The same is true with addiction, and understanding the similarities may help people in recovery know what to expect in the grieving process.
WHAT LOSS MIGHT LOOK LIKE IN ADDICTION RECOVERY
There are certain losses someone recovering from an addiction might grieve. These can include:
The addiction itself: It is natural to miss the addiction, whether a substance or behavior. It was an immediate, reliable, and intense high, as well as a way to escape more painful emotions and experiences. It is overwhelming to feel these things without the buffer of the addiction.
Rituals: These are the places, routines, and activities related to the addiction that were built firmly into the individual’s life. Going to the bar after work, for example, is a routine that will need to change and time that will have to be filled with something else. Making that adjustment can be extremely difficult.
Freedom: Addiction often involves avoiding responsibility, and therefore recovery “involves a great deal of being accountable,” writes Robert Weiss, PhD, who specializes in addiction relationships. It means meeting commitments and checking in with other people. These shifts in planning and behavior can feel constrictive, like a loss of freedom.
Relationships: For many people in recovery, interpersonal relationships—possibly entire social groups—will be lost. This may be necessary to avoid relapse, but it is understandably an immensely painful adjustment.
Identity: Possibly most difficult of all, people in recovery might grieve the loss of who they were or aspired to be. They might feel a deep loss of meaning in their lives or a disconnection from spiritual, religious, or existential values. Additionally, many people will grieve deeply for “the way things could have been” or time that cannot be recovered.
COMMON STAGES OF GRIEF
The Kübler-Ross model, which was originally intended to reflect how people cope with terminal illness and death, has since been applied to many kinds of losses, including addiction recovery. It is important to note that these stages are neither linear nor predictable, but they may reflect common experiences in grief.
Denial: At this stage, the need for change is appearing, but the individual is not yet fully aware of it. When it is too difficult to admit that the consequences of the addiction outweigh the rewards, denial acts like a safety mechanism, a protection from the enormity of those feelings.
Anger: Here, the individual becomes aware of what the addiction has cost them and of the need for change, while still holding tightly to the status quo. This resistance might look like blaming others, picking fights, or even feeling abandoned and betrayed by the addiction itself, despite having defended it for so long.
Bargaining: In this stage, the individual has made the decision to change, but the details of that change have not been figured out yet. Relapses may occur here, as bargaining is an attempt to maintain control without real change. They might try to have “the best of both worlds,” saying things like, “just one drink” or not telling people about their sobriety.
Depression: This is the beginning of truly understanding the extent and significance of the addiction. Great effort is put into adapting, and for someone in recovery, that effort might look like confusion, shame, and sadness. It might also bring up fear and anxiety that they did not really know themselves like they thought they did. The loss of idyllic future experiences, like having a glass of wine at a wedding or a cigarette with friends, will need to be grieved many times.
Acceptance: In this stage, the individual is accepting the death of their addiction and fine-tuning their adjustment to a life beyond it. Isolation and deception are replaced by new, healthy coping mechanisms, relationships, and support systems. They can now recognize without hesitation that one glass of wine could result in a DUI, or one cigarette could lead to a pack; they value and prioritize their health and the health of their relationships. A life without the addiction is becoming clear and achievable, and recovery becomes a choice.
GRIEF IS NORMAL. IT WON'T FEEL LIKE THIS FOREVER.
Seeing addiction as a relationship—as the best friend or loved one with whom we want to spend
our time—can help us understand that recovery is a form of loss, and grief is its natural, inevitable
reaction. If you are experiencing these feelings, know that you are not alone. It is important to
remember that this pain is a normal step in moving forward after addiction and that it will not
last forever. A healthy, happy, recovered life is within reach.
To find additional support and recovery resources, check out our resources page here. If you are in
recovery, you can become a member of the International Quit & Recovery Registry by registering
here, where you can take our monthly assessments, earn rewards, and get support from other
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Weiss, Robert. “The Role of Grief and Loss in Addiction Recovery.” Oxbow Academy. Accessed March 20, 2020.
Kramer, Lindsay. “Grieving the Death of Addiction.” American Addiction Centers. November 20, 2014. Accessed March 19, 2020.
Kvarnstrom, Elisabet. “Grieving the Loss of Addiction and Healing from Your Relationship with Drugs.” Alta Mira Recovery Programs. March 10, 2016. Accessed March 20, 2020.
Furr, Susan and Derrick Johnson. “Grief, loss and substance abuse.” Counseling Today. American Counseling Association. December 5, 2017. Accessed March 21, 2020.