dealing with grief

Advice for Dealing with Death and Grief While in Recovery

Advice for Dealing with Death and Grief While in Recovery

The loss of a loved one has been described as life’s most stressful event. It triggers a profound sense of grief, an outward expression of loss. Grief can be expressed physically, emotionally, and psychologically.

Dealing with death and the grieving process can be especially difficult for people recovering from addiction. Grief and sadness are feelings so many of us want to avoid, and in the addict, they can trigger a relapse. But, there are things you can do to deal with grief and stay sober.

Understanding Grief

When someone we love dies, our sadness can feel overwhelming. Part of the grieving process is allowing ourselves to experience that loss and all the feelings that come with it. Some people may feel numb at first, but there is no “right” emotion or order of feelings. Common emotions may include:

  • Denial
  • Disbelief
  • Confusion
  • Shock
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Despair
  • Guilt

It’s important to understand that all those feelings are normal, and they can cause physical responses like anxiety attacks, chronic fatigue, depression and thoughts of suicide.

Grief and the Recovering Addict

Grief can affect our ability to think clearly and process information. Dealing with grief is painful, and an addict’s reaction to painful situations is often to numb that pain with drugs and alcohol.

We often hear addicts say things like, “I just want to stop feeling this way”, or “I want the pain to stop”.

Helping addicts in recovery deal with grief and loss is often critical to protecting them against future relapses and worsening depression. Someone in recovery must learn to feel feelings and express them in healthy ways. If he doesn’t, those feelings will still come out, only in unhealthy ways. 

One mental health professional compares this struggle to avoid painful emotions to being stuck in quicksand. The harder someone struggles to get out, the deeper he sinks. Denying these feelings by burying them under drugs and alcohol will only delay them. But if the recovering addict can allow himself to experience grief and express sadness, those awful feelings will gradually begin to fall away on their own.

Dealing with Death in Recovery

A critical part of supporting an addict in recovery is to help him develop healthy activities, habits, and relationships. Newly-sober men and women often find themselves alone and helping them find support systems is vital.

Here are some ways to deal with grief and stay sober:

Ask for help. It’s not unusual for someone in recovery to isolate himself. He may do so as part of his recovery to stay away from the people he did drugs with, for example. But dealing with grief and loss alone is next to impossible. It’s important to reach out to family, friends or a mental health professional for support.

Be creative. People in recovery are often encouraged to write about their experiences in a journal or perhaps draw or paint them. This creative process can also help with grief. You might write a letter to the person who died and tell them all the things you wish you had said when they were alive. You might consider planting a tree in their memory.

Get moving. Exercise may be the last thing you want to do when you’re grieving, but it can help to get physical. Make time for hobbies you enjoy. Those might include running or kayaking or simply walking outside. The idea is to get outside, both physically and mentally. Get outside and enjoy the sunshine and fresh air. Get out of your own head and focus on something physical as a way to take a break from your grief. 

Eat healthily. You may not feel much like eating in the midst of your grief, but it’s critical to maintain a healthy diet. If you’re not eating well, it’s even more difficult to think clearly and stay strong enough to resist the temptation to use drugs and alcohol again. Good nutrition will give you the physical and mental strength you need to deal with stress. You might ask a friend or relative to help you prepare meals and eat with you. 

Go to a meeting. 12 step programs are the cornerstone of recovery for millions of addicts. Even if you’ve been sober for years and haven’t attended a meeting recently, that support network can help you process your grief in healthy ways. Fellow addicts in recovery can help guide you through the sadness and loss in ways that don’t threaten your sobriety.

Pray or meditate. You may have learned about meditation in the early stages of your recovery. It can be very helpful now, as you deal with grief and loss. You might ask a friend to join you at a yoga class or simply spend time in quiet contemplation. Prayer and meditation can help you process all the emotions you’re experiencing in a healthy environment. 

Own your feelings. It’s important to understand that your feelings are unique and normal. Resist the urge to compare your feelings to someone else’s. Your path is yours and yours alone. There is no right way to grieve, and there is no right time to stop grieving. This can happen sometimes in families who have lost someone close to them. If you’ve lost a parent, you may compare your healing to your siblings’ and wonder why your grief seems so much worse. Feeling like there’s something wrong with you can trigger a response that’s not healthy, and a relapse will only make you feel worse.

Get professional help. Dealing with strong emotions can be frightening for people in recovery who aren’t used to all those painful feelings. If you find yourself in a dark well of sadness that you can’t get out of, or if you’re contemplating suicide, reach out to a mental health professional or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. 

Final Thoughts

It’s not unusual for someone in recovery to find themselves dealing with a death that happened a long time ago. Using drugs and alcohol may have prevented you from grieving the loss when it happened. Your emotions now may be delayed grief, and they’re just as powerful as grief over a recent loss.

If you or someone you love is dealing with addiction, we can help. Please reach out to us any time for help with addiction and recovery. 

Article Reviewed by Dr. Keerthy Sunder, MD, DFAPA

Dr. Keerthy Sunder, MD, DFAPADr. Keerthy Sunder, MD is an accomplished and internationally recognized expert in the field of addiction. He has earned diplomates from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, the American Board of Addiction Medicine, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.