No matter where you are in life, losing someone is difficult, painful, and traumatic. Many people experience dramatic changes in their lifestyle and personality as the result of a loss, simply because losing someone they love deeply affects their mental health and state. When you’re in recovery, this process can be even more deeply felt, as you are already experiencing and dealing with pain and trauma and may not have the means to cope with the additional stress of loss.
While losing someone can be a tipping point back into relapse, it doesn’t have to be. Losing someone hurts, but if you’re in recovery you have already been building the skills and behaviors to cope with emotional pain and stress. If you’re not, you should seek out a rehab program offering therapy and counseling to help you.
Dealing with grief and loss in recovery is complex, it can be difficult not to use or drink to cope, and it can be harder than losing someone if you were otherwise healthy. But you can get through it, without relapse. These 8 tips for dealing with grief and loss in recovery will get you started on the right track to ensure that you stay clean and sober while dealing with your emotions in a healthy way.
1. Acknowledge Your Emotions
Everyone deals with pain and loss in different ways, but it’s crucial that you acknowledge what you are feeling and why. You may feel sad, depressed, angry, hurt, confused, or any of a number of other emotions. They may not directly link to how you felt about the person you lost or why. However, they do link to the fact that you’ve experienced something traumatic and you do need time to heal and recover.
If you attended drug and alcohol addiction treatment and received counseling, you probably remember being walked through how you feel about emotions regarding substance use and abuse. Dealing with the emotions from grieving is often the same thing. Recognize they are there, acknowledge them, and process them. You’re allowed to feel sad or angry or depressed and you should give yourself time to do that.
2. Talk About Your Pain
You don’t have to grieve alone, even if you don’t have friends and family to discuss your pain and grief with. Most self-help groups including 12-Step, SMART, and others will create space for members to talk about themselves and their lives, and you can discuss your pain and loss with people who genuinely care and often know what you’re going through.
Talking with friends and family who know the person you lost is always better, for the sole reason that you can share experiences, good and bad. Being able to share that you’re hurt and acknowledge it with someone else who feels the same way is also better for you than sharing with a stranger, but it’s not always possible.
3. Talk About Your Cravings
Negative emotions almost always act as a trigger for cravings and even relapse. If you’re experiencing strong emotions including grief, sadness, anger, and desolation, you will experience cravings. Many people start using substances as a form of self-medication, they want to feel better, so they use to get the “high” that comes from a rush of dopamine and serotonin to the brain. When you feel sad and are experiencing grief and loss, your body won’t be producing enough serotonin and dopamine, you’ll want to feel better. Even if you’ve been clean or sober for some time, you may experience sudden and strong cravings for drugs or alcohol. You’ll also likely be thinking things like “just the once”, “I just need something to make it feel better”, and so on. Talk about your cravings, try to occupy your time, and create something to do when you experience them. For example, you could call a friend or your sober buddy, go for a run, get a shower, do a task at work, etc.
If you can distract yourself for at least 15-30 minutes without acting on your cravings, chances are the worst of it will go away. It’s also important to discuss it with your sobriety or self-help group or your counselor if you’re still seeing them.
4. Use Your Time Creatively
Most people cope with grief and loss in different ways. However, most people greatly benefit from having a creative outlet which they can use to spend time and energy on instead of focusing on feeling bad. You will have to spend some time feeling bad, but if you can pour negative energy into something creative such as playing a musical instrument, building something, swimming, doing a sport, painting, etc., you will be able to use that time to process grief and to feel better instead of simply letting it build up.
5. Do Something for Your Loved One
Getting closure isn’t always possible, but you can build closure to the best of your ability. Taking the time to do something for your loved one can help you to get closure so you do feel better. That may mean cleaning out their house of things and helping the rest of your or their family. It may mean doing something they wanted for you. And it may mean writing them a letter.
If you haven’t had time to resolve your relationship after getting clean or sober, you may greatly benefit from trying to write out everything they meant to you, writing out apologies where needed, and closing with what you wished the relationship could be. You won’t be able to say it to them, but you can build some of that closure for yourself.
6. Understand that Grief is Not Linear
The Kubler-Ross model of grief suggests that grief happens in stages and most people progress through them in the same order. This isn’t always or even often true. Grief has been proven to occur in different ways and at different times. Grief can come in stages, it can go up and down, and you can feel sad one moment and angry the next. You will experience grief in your own way and time and some days you will be fine, some days you won’t. If you can expect that and understand there is no right way to grieve, you’ll be in a much better position to understand what’s happening to you and why.
If you experience extreme grief, where you cannot function or cope, you may be experiencing Complicated Grief, which is a traumatic reaction to loss experienced by about 7% of individuals after a bereavement. Here, you will need counseling and support, just like you would for any other form of trauma.
7. Take Care of Your Physical Health
Most of the time, when we feel bad, our natural instinct is to pamper ourselves, eat badly, and stay in bed or on the couch. This isn’t the best reaction because it prevents your body from improving your mental health. For example, if you were to exercise, your body would produce dopamine and serotonin, which level the mood, work to make you feel better, and will help you to recover. You’ll also have improved blood flow, which will give you more energy, so you feel better. At the same time, eating right impacts you in similar ways, but not to the same extent. It’s always a good idea to eat healthy food, especially if you’re in recovery, because you likely need good nutrition to recover your health and mental well-being.
8. Take Care of Your Mental Health
Your mental health is intrinsically linked to your physical health and it is where you will be most impacted by grief. If you can, take time to meditate or practice mindfulness, see your support group, and talk to your therapist or counselor when possible. Grief is very often a form of trauma and getting support for that trauma can prevent it from becoming a trigger. While everyone will deal with it in their own way, being able to work through grief and the complex emotional response to it can also help you to be able to better process and understand your emotions linking sadness to cravings and relapse.
Recovering from grief and loss is a complicated process without adding a former drug or alcohol addiction into the process. If you’re in recovery, chances are that grief and loss will trigger new and more intense cravings, you may backslide, and you may even relapse. Staying on top of your mental health, giving yourself space to grieve and to feel bad, and seeking out help from friends and family, your support or 12-step group, and your counselor or therapist will help you to stay on track.
If you or your loved-one needs help, please contact Lighthouse Treatment Center today for more information. We are to help and happy to provide a no-cost, no-obligation consultation with one of our experienced treatment advisors.