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A No-Relapse Guide to Coping with Grief & Loss

Through the course of recovery from addiction we learn mindfulness and healthy expression because we understand that everything is connected. Our sobriety, our self care, managing our responsibilities and working our programs are all intimately dependent upon each other. One of the wisest women I’ve had the honor of knowing reminded me every so often, “We can go back to step one at any time. No matter how well you’re doing, things will happen that rock your world and you’ll be completely powerless over them.”

I’ve come to have a strong appreciation for how right she was. The things that tend to impact me the hardest are the things I couldn’t possibly have anticipated, much less controlled. The most difficult of these has been the unexpected death of a loved one. 

These are the times when it seems the world should simply stop turning. In the midst of our shock and loss we temporarily regress. Our functioning is diminished. In very short order, however, we must resume vigilance because as we well know; what we refuse to deal with will deal with us.

We have a long history of avoiding feelings in our past and cannot afford to resume our old ways. Avoidance and repression of emotion are fodder not only for our disease; they are also the fuel that feeds our depression and anxiety. Left unattended, they are major contributors to relapse.

Step 1 - Get Support

As any therapist will tell you, “unresolved grief and loss” is a burden commonly carried. The most difficult aspect of managing loss is that it connects us to past losses we’ve not grieved. The emotional fallout can be overwhelming because the past and present collide and perspective becomes hard to maintain.

  1. It’s absolutely vital that we keep ourselves in the company of supportive others and express what we’re feeling.
  2. Increasing our meeting attendance and phone calls to friends and contacts is a solid start to adjusting to our lives as they continue to change.
  3. We need to increase our accountability by letting folks know what we’re going through, lest we seek unhealthy means to numb our pain.

Avoid Unhealthy Grieving (Holding Back)

The mythology of “being strong” for our loved ones is nowhere more apparent than in the midst of the loss of a friend or family member. Being stoic and holding back our tears does not benefit others. Allowing others to bear witness to our suffering is not burdening them. We are not imposing nor “adding to their plate.”

  • Through the course of recovery we learned that, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

Suffering involves experiencing pain alone. We recycle it and release nothing. Grieving involves sharing pain with others and allowing ourselves to release it. Novelist Spider Robinson said it best, “Shared joy is increased. Shared pain is halved.”

Healthy Grieving with a Twist

We all know the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Consider this:

  • As addicts and alcoholics we are masterful in four out of five. Unfortunately we tend to do them to the extremes and toward dubious ends.

Instead, let’s do them in a way that’s balanced and transformative.

  1. Denial is little more than shock. It fades if it’s not perpetuated. Get grounded in the here and now. Denial leaves us feeling numb and that’s dangerous for us (we used to want to feel that).
  2. We can allow ourselves to be angry and express it in healthy ways. Then we can identify everything else we feel and cope with it.
  3. Bargaining is making deals with God. We know how that works out. Let’s keep this to a minimum and turn our focus away from what we’re powerless over. Trusting our Higher Power to manage what we cannot is the only healthy option.
  4. Depression is episodic in nature. Repressing anger and hurt feelings leads to resentment. It creates distance between ourselves and loved ones during times when we need them the most.
  5. Acceptance comes slowly to us. We don’t have to accept that we’ve lost something/someone precious but that doesn’t bring them back. We can be mindful of the Serenity Prayer and ask for “serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

Honor Your Loved-One by Living Well

The concept of honoring our dead is little more than a nice idea. The best way we can honor those who went before us is to live the lives they would want for us. The last thing they’d want is for us to spend time in self pity. They’d want us to let go, get our needs met, and get back to the business of living.

Ask your Higher Power for grace. A wonderful old timer told me once that grace is “unmerited divine intervention.” The silver lining of loss is that we grow spiritually because we rely more fully on God to see us through the dark valleys in our lives.

If you find yourself stuck, be mindful that there is no greater honor than being of service to another addict or alcoholic. Reach out to newcomers and help them find their way. As Grandma Moses so simply and powerfully said, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

Clinical Social Worker/Therapist
My story is I'm forever a work in progress and I love connecting with REAL people who are doing great things. I'm blessed to be making a living doing something I love. I'm a proud dad and the luckiest husband ever. I'm an aspiring author - check out my recovery blog at: Thanks! Jim

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