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6 Tips for Dealing with Grief & Loss in Recovery

A young woman gets some heroin for her best girlfriend, who then overdoses and dies. Intellectually, the young woman thinks “it’s not my fault,” but emotionally she blames herself for the death. Each time she attempts to get clean and sober, the guilt and pain are too much, the voices too loud, and she relapses.

Four days before their 40th wedding anniversary, Bill’s wife dies in a tragic auto accident. After the funeral, Bill discards his 35 years of sobriety, and attempts to drink himself to death. His AA friends rescue him and get him into treatment. At the recovery center, most of the counselors have far less time than Bill did before his relapse. Bill feels superior to the staff, exhibits contempt for them, and sees no purpose in either getting sober again or continuing to live.

A 17-year-old party girl gets pregnant and has an abortion, a choice with which she is very comfortable. Twelve years later, when she attempts to get clean and sober, overwhelming grief, remorse and guilt sabotage her attempts at recovery. The pain is “too much to stand,” and she is convinced God hates her because of the abortion.

A top physician spirals into cocaine addiction and alcoholism, is arrested and convicted for possession of a large amount of cocaine, and loses his wife, kids, home, and license to practice medicine. He manages to stay sober for three joyless years, but cannot get over the grief related to losing his family and career.

These four stories, and thousands and thousands of others, stand in testimony to the fact that most – if not all – of those in early recovery are dealing with grief – the normal and natural reaction to loss. The grief may or may not be death-related. It might be about loss of opportunity, loss of family, career, and/or lifestyle, or even the personal internal losses of dignity, self-respect, trust-worthiness, and integrity. The grief can also be over the loss of the relationship with our drug or bottle “of choice.”
The grief may or may not be death-related. It might be about loss of opportunity, loss of family, career, and/or lifestyle, or even the personal internal losses of dignity, self-respect, trust-worthiness, and integrity.

Grief may:

  • Separate us from God and self
  • Fuel hopelessness
  • Drain all energy and joy
  • Lead to disordered eating and/or sleep
  • Disrupt one’s ability to focus, concentrate, or remember
  • Fuel both over-reaction and shutting down
  • Block intimacy and connection
  • Rob ambition, drive, purpose, and passion

For those who work in recovery, the scenario of the overwhelming grief-related pain driving clients to self-medicate that pain is all too common. Grief-related pain and hopelessness can block the newcomer from sobriety, can drive those with solid sobriety to relapse, and can block engagement, pleasure, and a life of comfort and quality.

The Grief Recovery Method is the single most effective, accessible, and rapid vehicle for real completion of the grieved relationship and for meaningful recovery from grief. Their website can put grievers in touch with local specialists who are trained and certified to take grievers through the 16-step process of Grief Recovery. The website provides contact with specialists throughout the United States; for help in other countries, call the Institute at 800-334-7606.

People working in recovery can also help clients who are grieving in a number of ways. Here are 6 tips:

  • First, they can provide a listening ear and a caring heart. Grievers have a great need to tell their story and to be heard.
  • Second, they can avoid the many well-intentioned but unhelpful platitudes grievers so often hear (she’s in a better place; at least he’s not suffering anymore; be glad you had her so long; I understand exactly how you feel; God needed her more than you did; etc.).
  • Third, explain that the Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) have been debunked, and really don’t exist. Therefore, the griever need not focus on or even think about whether they are grieving “correctly.”
  • Fourth, help the griever understand that the tools most of us have learned simply do not work. These include replace the loss, compare the loss, stay busy, just give it time (or “time heals all wounds”), and stay strong for others.
  • Fifth, provide a non-judgmental opportunity for clients to explore and process their feelings, whatever they might be (depression, I’m a victim, guilt, anger, vengeance, self-destruction or self-sabotage, hopelessness, pointlessness, or just the “fuck-its”). Remember to remind clients that grief is the most unique of all emotions, and its style, intensity, presentation, and duration will vary tremendously from griever-to-griever.
  • Sixth, teach clients to reframe either the loss, and/or their part in the loss. In other words, find an alternative way to tell their story, one in which – at the least – they are not a victim, and where – at the most – they are a hero. Mindfulness practice can be invaluable in helping teach clients to release the story they tell about the loss and their attachment to that loss. A great resource for this teaching and practice is Debra Burdick’s Mindfulness Skills Workbook for Clinicians & Clients (ISBN: 9781-9361-28457).
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