Drug Addiction

How To Maintain Sobriety After Loss

Man considers using drugs to cope with his grief.

Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there, I do not sleep. I am in a thousand winds that blow, I am the softly falling snow. I am the gentle showers of rain, I am the fields of ripening grain. I am in the morning hush, I am in the graceful rush Of beautiful birds in circling flight, I am the starshine of the night. I am in the flowers that bloom, I am in a quiet room. I am in the birds that sing, I am in each lovely thing. Do not stand at my grave and cry, I am not there. I do not die.” — Mary Elizabeth Frye

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Grief is one of the most powerful human experiences. It does not come alone, but brings anxiety, depression, fear, sadness, and any other negative emotions you may think of.  Most importantly, grief brings back unresolved feelings from past loss.  This makes each new death a fresh experience while also magnifying the sorrow held within us.  The rush of intense emotion makes grief a dangerous but necessary experience while in recovery.  Mourning is often only associated with the death of individuals, but in reality, these are feelings that come with the end of any relationship.  Recovery from addiction is a grieving process, as it marks the end of a relationship with substance use, including the good and the bad that came with it.  Being able to appropriately process grief will lead to long-term benefits to not only your emotional health but your recovery as well.  Be aware, however, that the stress associated with grief may leave you vulnerable to relapse.  

Understanding Grief

You may have heard of the five stages of grief by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.  These stages can often be understood as different defense mechanisms used for the purpose of insulating ourselves from the harsh reality of the situation we find ourselves in. These stages are:

  1. Denial: This can be seen as being unable to accept or process the situation, therefore not believing that it is occurring.  This may be more prominent in deaths that are sudden or unexpected.
  2. Anger: We replace our sadness and fear in the wake of loss with anger as a means of defending ourselves.
  3. Bargaining: This often manifests itself as distorted thought processes such as, “if only ___” and “I could have done more.”  Guilt is commonly associated with these thoughts.
  4. Depression: This can look differently depending on the individual; for some it could be isolation and sadness, while for others it could be a deep sense of being alone in the world.
  5. Acceptance: This involves acknowledging the situation as it is and being able to move on in our lives while still having respect and appreciation for the memory of the individual.

It is likely that you have experienced one or all of these throughout active addiction and recovery in regard to your substance of choice. The same may be said for grieving the loss of a loved one.  It is important to note that these stages may not be experienced in this order necessarily.  The way we experience grief can look different from person to person.  Having the willingness to be aware of our own grieving processes can indicate when we may need help, from ourselves or others.  We can become more aware of our own grieving processes through a number of ways, such as individual or group therapy, journaling, and mindfulness practices such as meditation.  As we explore this grief, we become more aware of how these emotions can derail our recovery and what we need to do to stay on track.

Preventing Relapse

What situations have been triggering in past grieving experiences?  Some individuals may associate events such as wakes or burials with using, especially if this is behavior common within the group having this shared experience.  If this has been the case for you in the past, consider what you can do to make this situation safer for you.  This could be achieved through attending the event with a sober peer for support, making some individuals at the event aware of your recovery as a means of holding you accountable, and limiting the time spent at these events.  Discomfort associated with these suggestions is natural, and this is not an exhaustive list of potential solutions.

Part of recovery is finding our way through challenging situations such as these creatively and safely.  Lastly, we may need to be willing to consider not attending at all and finding our own way to appropriately mourn.  Depending on where we are in our recovery, there may be situations that are simply too dangerous for us.  It is important to remember that decisions along these lines are based around protecting ourselves, and in turn it could be said that we are worthy enough to be protected.

Grieving is not a process that we must go through alone.  Learning to trust others and reaching out for help are skills that are often required in recovery.  We may feel a sense of discomfort when we reach out for help regarding these emotions, perhaps because we feel uncomfortable feeling them alone even.  In this case, be conscious of who we choose to reach out to and for what reason.  We may not feel comfortable baring our soul to another person about the death of a loved one.  In this case, consider the function that we are seeking from another individual at this time.  Sometimes, we need to distract ourselves from triggering emotions, and this can be done with the help of our support network.  This can be accomplished through attending a support group, going for a walk in the park, or eating a meal together.  Even if we aren’t ready to process some of our negative emotions, safety does exist when we’re with the right people.

Overcoming Your Loss

Death can be seen as an unfair experience, because oftentimes it is.  The idea that a life can be cut short while there is so much left to give and receive is scary and unsettling.  The death of another may even make us think about our own mortality, which is anxiety-provoking for many.  Throughout this experience, we must consider the gifts that we received from the individual in question.  Be willing to ask what this person gave, tangibly and not, and what that meant to you.  I was asked this recently regarding a death in my own life, and I thought about the kindness and gratitude that I was given and how that helped me.  I didn’t realize this on my own, but this person helped me understand that I gave kindness and gratitude to the deceased as well.  When someone dies, we often seek reason in an experience that may lack it, and as a result we blame ourselves.  We may never truly know how much we positively and compassionately impacted the lives of those who pass away, but we can trust our own memories and what we felt at those times.  Even if it is difficult, we owe it to those we have lost and to ourselves to not only recognize the gifts we have given to others, but what those gifts meant to them as well. 

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1 Comment


William Buller. CAC on August 21, 2020 2:27 PM

Good article Dexter. In addition to what you shared, I found it helpful to help the clients understand that death is a very normal, and natural part of life. It is a great opportunity to explore a person's spiritual beliefs and see what comforting thoughts may be there. Finally, I find it important to make sure the individual knows they are feeling emotions that are the same as what every human being on the planet feels in their situation, and to embrace their feelings as normal and healthy. The normal grieving process is at around 90- days. Anything over that, that is not a cultural tradition, could be a sign of complicated grief and the client needs help with depression. Thank you for great advice on an important issue in recover!

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