Losing a loved one is one of the most painful human experiences. Grief can take a toll on even the most resilient individuals, as feelings of guilt, denial, sadness, and despair sometimes overwhelm our ability to cope. For those in addiction recovery, the time of grief after losing a loved one is an incredibly high risk period. Even those who have been sober for many years may succumb to relapse when dealing with grief.
Grief compromises our ability to think clearly, and an addict’s gut reaction for dealing with grief will be to numb the pain with drugs and alcohol. However, relapse is not inevitable, nor the answer. There are things you can do to help ease the pain of dealing with death while staying sober.
People in recovery are some of the strongest people out there. You were able to overcome your disease and have learned many coping skills along the way. This means you have the skills for dealing with grief as well, even if it does not seem that way in the beginning. The following tips are meant to remind you of your strength and the steps you can take to prevent relapse while dealing with the loss of a loved one.
Strategies for Dealing with Death and Grief in Recovery
1. Reach out for support.
The most important thing you can do is reach out for support rather than retreating within yourself. Calling on the support of friends, family, and others in recovery at this time is more crucial than ever. You may even ask someone from your support network to stay with you as you pass through the early and most vulnerable stages of grief, when cravings to use will be strong.
2. Acknowledge your emotions.
Grief will bring with it a range of emotions and numbing yourself with substances or otherwise avoiding the pain and sadness is the worst thing you can do. With the help of your supports, acknowledge and express any feelings such as sadness, anger, and guilt that arise. Allowing yourself to experience intense streams of emotion will help you move through your grief and come to peace with your loss.
3. Return to regular meetings.
In early recovery it is not uncommon to attend meetings regularly, even every day. As time goes on and our sobriety gets stronger, often attendance of group meetings become less frequent. When you are dealing with grief it is a good idea to regularly attend recovery meetings. Surrounding yourself with people who understand the cravings you are experiencing will help you get through them without relapsing. Recovery groups can serve as a reminder of the pain that addiction brings and will help you keep your sobriety a priority even through the most difficult of times.
4. Be creative.
Engaging in a creative activity can help you acknowledge and express your emotions in a healthy way. Writing, painting, or gardening are all creative outlets you can use to pay tribute to a lost loved one. Writing journal entries and letters, planting a tree or flowers in remembrance, or letting your emotions come out in colour through painting and drawing can help you work through the difficult emotions you are experiencing.
5. Pray and/or meditate.
Practicing mindfulness meditation can help you acknowledge your stream of emotions, as well as ride out cravings when they occur. Meditation helps us understand that no feelings last forever. Both prayer and meditation can help you stay connected to your strength when you need it the most.
6. Read encouraging books and articles.
Although you may feel alone, all of us end up dealing with death at some point. Read books of encouragement, or stories of how other people in recovery have made it through their grief and despair while still maintaining their sobriety. Reading another person’s story can help you understand your own feelings.
7. Practise healthy eating and sleeping habits.
Grief can make it very difficult to keep up healthy practises. For those in recovery, slipping into poor eating and sleeping habits only compounds the risk for relapse. You can enlist the help of others by asking them to regularly share meal times with you. If you are struggling with sleeping too little or too much it may be wise to consult your doctor or counsellor for extra help.
8. Get personal counselling.
Dealing with grief is not something you have to do alone. The support of friends and family is crucial, but you may want to enlist the support of a professional counsellor as well. Counsellors will help you apply all of the above strategies and are experienced in helping people dealing with death and loss. Especially if your urges to use are strong, or you feel like life is not worth living, seeking professional help is necessary.
Planning Ahead for Grief Triggers
While none of the above are meant to cure or completely take away the pain that comes with grief, they are tools that will help you get through the experience and stay sober. Grief can last for months, and even years after a loss there will be times when your heart feels heavy.
When you are dealing with grief it is important to plan ahead for grief triggers, just as you plan for relapse triggers. Holidays, anniversaries, and other certain times and places may revive feelings of grief. Prepare for these times so you are not caught off guard when waves of grief hit. You might take the day off from work in advance or schedule a counselling session — but whatever coping strategy you choose, ensure you know what it will be in advance, to help prevent relapse.
For anyone who has suffered alcoholism, a drug addiction, or process addiction — dealing with grief after the loss of a loved one will likely be one of the most challenging times you go through in your recovery. If you do relapse after the loss of a loved one, it does not mean that you have failed and should just continue using. Instead, you need to get help as soon as possible to get back on track. Admit your lapse to someone else and consider entering a drug or alcohol rehab. There are people who care for you and want you to continue to succeed in your recovery despite setbacks.