Managing Grief during Addiction Recovery
If there is one thing that is certain in life it is that change will continue to happen. When the change is not your choice or preference, however, and when it causes a shift that you are not prepared to make, grief is a natural response. Loss of a loved one, extreme financial distress through job loss or bankruptcy, divorce, or diagnosis of a chronic illness – any of these can cause extreme grief.
In recovery, this can be a time to rededicate oneself to sobriety in order to protect against relapse, while managing grief positively in the following ways:
- Allow yourself to cry. Most people acknowledge that crying privately over a loss, a diagnosis, or a tough event in life is acceptable, but if you find that you start to cry in the grocery store, in the car on the way home from work, watching a movie, seeing an old picture, or due to something completely random, that is okay too. Grief is an important part of processing a big life event, and holding it in or trying to pretend that everything is fine will only prolong the length of time it takes to find solid ground again.
- Recognize that everyone processes grief differently. There is no standard set of “should” and “should not” when it comes to the feelings and experiences that define the grieving process. If you don’t cry for a while, that’s okay, and if you cry periodically for months, that’s okay too. If you experience anger, insomnia, and feelings of isolation or need, all of this is fine. It’s okay to have mood swings and be a bit unpredictable. All of this will help you to live through the experience actively. Eventually, in time, balance will begin to return – but let it happen on your time, at your pace.
- Do something physical. Though you may want to do nothing but lay on the couch and stare at the wall – and certainly, this may be your experience for the first few days or even weeks after the event – it can help to get up and moving. Take it slow if you don’t feel motivated: a walk or a dip in the pool are enough to get you going. When you are ready, take it up a notch. Go to a workout class, meet with a personal trainer, return to a sport that you have previously enjoyed, or meet regularly with a friend for a walk with the dogs in the park. Getting your body moving can serve to get your emotions processing as well. Too much physical stillness for too long can translate into emotional stagnation, and conversely, getting up can help you to begin living your life, even if just for a few minutes or an hour.
- Investigate. If the source of your grief is the diagnosis of a chronic illness in yourself or someone you love, learn as much as you can about the disorder, treatments, and how best to manage the issue. If you are going through a divorce, a bankruptcy, your child is struggling, or another jarring life event, find out everything you can about how to get through the process as swiftly and efficiently as possible. If a loved one has died, read about death. Novels can be just as helpful as memoirs, quantum physics, philosophy, and religious books. Becoming comfortable with whatever the issue is that you are facing can diminish its power and help you to get a handle on how best to proceed in a way that preserves your mental and physical health.
- Keep eating healthfully. You may not feel like eating at all, or conversely, you may feel like living inside a bag of potato chips or a carton of ice cream. Neither of these choices will provide your body and brain with nutrients that will help you to continue functioning healthfully as you get through this process. Eating healthfully is essential to positive mental and physical wellness.
- Try to get good sleep. Similarly, though you may feel like you cannot sleep at all or that you want to do nothing but stay in bed, it is important to strive for a positive sleep schedule. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, make your sleep space as restful as possible, and avoid stimulating activities, including use of electronic screens, in the hours before bed.
- Connect with others who are also grieving. It can be a relief to be around people who know firsthand what you are experiencing. These people may be at different points in their process and may be able to provide you with useful tips and support, or you may be able to offer some support in return, which can be empowering. Additionally, you may make some new friends who understand where you are in your ability to connect with others and who may show up for you in ways that others may not even know you need. Support groups for specific issues are a great way to facilitate this process, offering you personal connection with others while providing you with access to a range of practical resources as well.
- Consider medical help options. If you find that six months after a one-time grief event (e.g., death) you are still struggling significantly with the issue, it may be time to seek therapeutic and/or medical help if you have not already. Depending upon the nature of the issue, it may be normal to continue to grieve on some level for months longer or even years – as in an extended divorce or long-term chronic illness. In these cases, it is recommended that you seek the support of a therapeutic professional.
It is important to note that use of alcohol and/or other substances to manage the feelings associated with grief is common, and you may be offered a drink repeatedly or consider drinking or getting high. As much as it may seem like a way to escape, there are better ways to manage acute feelings of stress and sadness. For those in recovery, even one drink could precipitate a downward slide back into active addiction, which will only worsen the situation.
How do you avoid relapse and work through unexpected change?