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Navigating Grief in Addiction Recovery 


Grieving while in addiction recovery is especially painful. If you’ve been numbing out with drugs or alcohol for quite some time, feeling the waves of grief can be notably challenging. Unfortunately grief is not quick or painless. Navigating grief is one of the most emotionally difficult things to do in recovery. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been sober, grief happens to everyone at some point or another. There’s a saying “time heals all wounds”, but when it comes to grief, this is simply not true.  

Although there are different types of losses, for the purposes of this article, we are going to focus specifically on the loss of life and the different stages of grief.  Many lose their lives to addiction, and the longer you stay in recovery, the greater the chances are that you’ll experience a friend or family member dying from addiction (or other causes).  

Grief is a process that takes time, support and self-acceptance to move beyond. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed the five stages of grief in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. Grief is typically conceptualized as a reaction to death, though it can occur anytime reality is not what we wanted, hoped for, or expected. Here are the most common stages of grief.  

Denial. Being in denial is the earliest stage of the grief process. Denial occurs when someone has not fully comprehended the loss of a loved one. Denial is a safety mechanism that protects one from being too overwhelmed by their own feelings. Being in denial is a form of shock.  Denial can look like avoidance, numbness, or confusion. Typically when a person is in denial, they might say things like “this just can’t be true”, or “I can’t believe this happened”. The period of denial can vary from person to person, but eventually it will pass.  

Anger. The anger stage of grief exists as an attempt to avoid the true underlying emotional problem. Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. By being willing to feel your anger, the more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal. Anger is not bad or good, but it can be destructive if not dealt with properly. We wrote an entire article on how to manage anger which can be found here.  

In the case of anger when grieving, underneath anger is pain of the loss.  Anger is an emotion we are most used to experiencing. You might find yourself angry at the person who passed away or maybe a person who didn’t attend the funeral.  The anger is just an indication of the intensity of your love for your loved one. 

Bargaining. In the bargaining stage of grief, the person is beginning to come to some realization of the loss.  However, to compensate they are working hard to try to continue to avoid facing the reality of the loss. To bargain is to try to maintain control and continue to live without real change taking place.  

There will be times where it feels like you would have done anything for your loved one to be spared.  With bargaining there is a tendency to become lost in statements like “If only…” or questions like “what if…” in order to not fully surrender to what has happened. 

Sometimes with bargaining, guilt steps in. There’s a belief that something different could have been done to save the person who we lost. There might be a bargaining with the pain to avoid feeling the pain of this loss. Bargaining is a way to remain in the past, trying to negotiate out of the way out of the hurt. People often think of the stages as lasting weeks or months but with grief, there is no linear timeline.  

Depression. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, sometimes deeper than we ever imagined. This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever. It’s important to understand that this depression is not always a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss. Depression after a loss is too often seen as unnatural: a state to be fixed, something to snap out of. The first question to ask yourself is whether or not the situation you’re in is actually depressing. The loss of a loved one is a very depressing situation, and depression is a normal and appropriate response. To not experience depression after a loved one dies would be unusual. The realization that your loved one is not coming back is understandably depressing. If grief is a process of healing, then depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way. No longer denying, feeling angry or bargaining, this is where a grieving person begins to delve into the sadness and fear of what’s happened.  

Acceptance.  Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being “OK” with what has happened. Most people don’t ever feel all right about the loss of a loved one. This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality. We will never like this reality, but eventually we accept it. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live. We must try to live now in a world where our loved one is missing. In resisting this new norm, at first many people want to maintain life as it was before a loved one died. Our reality, through acceptance, we see that we cannot maintain the past intact. It has been forever changed and we must readjust. We must learn to reorganize roles, re-assign them to others or take them on ourselves. As we begin to live again and enjoy our life, we often feel that in doing so, we are betraying our loved one. We can never replace the person we lost, but we can make new normal for ourselves. We begin to live again, but we cannot do so until we have given grief it’s time. 

Here are some suggestions for dealing with grief:

  1. Acknowledge that you are in the grief process and that there is no timeline or table for grieving.  Ignoring your pain will only delay inevitable healing. If you are in denial, allow yourself the proper time to go through each stage of grief without trying to rush yourself.
  2. Accept that grief can trigger uncomfortable emotions. Your grieving process will be unique to you. No two persons grieve the same way. 
  3. Take care of your physical wellbeing. When we are in grief it can be difficult to take care of ourselves physically. Taking care of our physical wellbeing will help being able to deal with difficult emotions when they arise. 
  4. Seek support from a licensed therapist or support group. There are many free support groups for those who are grieving,  and these groups are usually facilitated by a therapist. Finding a therapist that you can speak with regularly can help successfully navigate the grieving process.

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, please contact us at 1-866-UTAH-HOPE for your free benefits review or click here.