The death of a loved one and the feelings of loss and grief that follow are some of the most difficult things we must face as human beings.  The experience is always excruciating and emotional and inspires deep thought about life, love, and our relationships, and forces us to reflect on our own mortality as well.  For individuals in recovery, the loss of a loved one can be a precarious time.  In fact, the death of someone close to you can be an extremely strong relapse trigger, and can and does drive many right back into drug abuse and active addiction, regardless of how long you have been clean and sober.

Complicated Grief

While grief and loss is something we all experience, different people deal with it in different ways.  Although many people are saddened by the death of a loved one, they are able to accept it, process it, and move on independently.  However,  7% of people that have lost someone close to them have a more extended and intense experience known as Complicated Grief, also known as Complex Bereavement Disorder – and some researchers believe the percentage of people effected may even be as high as 15%.  Complicated Grief can include symptoms and side effects such as depression, preoccupation with feelings of loss or sadness, and inability to experience pressure, and can result in difficulties in adhering to normal daily routines.  These symptoms can further lead to agitation, irritability, inability to trust others, social withdrawal, and eventually, a feeling that life has lost all meaning.  Anyone who has lost someone may feel some or all of these things initially after the loss, but for someone experiencing Complicated Grief, these feelings can go on for many months, or even on some level, for years.   Complicated Grief, then, as you can imagine, is extremely dangerous for those recovering from addiction, as any one of the many symptoms by itself can quickly set the stage for relapse.

How to Help Yourself Grieve in a Healthy Way

There are many things you can do to help work through your sadness and grief, and there are clear steps you can take to avoid relapse during this difficult time.  Some of the following tips are helpful to anyone suffering the loss of a loved one, and others are specific to individuals in recovery, but either way, know that dealing with death is difficult for everyone, and that you are not alone.  Most importantly, reach out to others if you feel you need help.

  • Acknowledge your emotions. It’s okay to be sad.  Don’t push your feelings deep down inside yourself and certainly don’t be afraid to cry.  As a recovering addict, you likely spent years of your life numbing emotional pain with various substances, but that’s not a part of your life anymore.  Feel everything, in spite of the pain; in doing so, you will allow yourself to work through your grief and move forward from there.
  • Be creative. Using creative outlets to work through your feelings can be healthy and uplifting.  Whether you draw, paint, sculpt, build, design, play music, or write, using your creative mind to develop personal expression is a great way to move through difficult times using your mind together with your body.
  • Pray or meditate. Whether you are religious or not, quiet periods of contemplation can be just what you need during this difficult time.  Consider visiting a church or other place of worship, or step out into a quiet spot in nature to commune with silence and deep, clear thought.  You may find that quieting your mind helps you to further understand the true nature of the universe, and the impermanence in everything around us.
  • Volunteer your time. There’s no better way to help yourself than by helping others.  In addition to helping others, you will be keeping yourself busy by doing something good.  Volunteering is a great way to give back to your community and is a great way to meet like-minded people.  Mentally dedicate your volunteer hours to your lost loved one; it is a great way to celebrate his or her life through service.   If you want to find great volunteer opportunities in your area, check out org.
  • Focus on your health. Taking care of yourself is always important, but when you are dealing with deep and powerful emotions inside, it is even more important to be conscious of the right decisions necessary to keep you physically healthy.  Be sure to get lots of sleep and eat healthily, in the foods you choose and the amounts and frequency of eating.  Keep your exercise routine going as well.  It will help to keep you busy and working up a good sweat is always a great outlet for any emotions you are feeling.
  • Read encouraging books and articles. Fact of the matter is, people have been dying since the beginning of time – unfortunately, that’s just the nature of life.  However, as a result there are countless books and articles on the topic, and on how others have managed to work through loss in their own lives.  Reading other people’s stories can vastly help you live through your own tale, and their words of encouragement can give you strength.  There are many lists online of books recommended to those who are grieving that can be found with a simple search, such as this one from com and this one from The Wall Street Journal.
  • Don’t grieve alone. Although some of the things recommended above do include periods of solitude, if you need someone to talk to, reach out and find someone.  There is a Buddhist folktale of a woman whose only son had died, and she grieved intensely.  She went to the Buddha and asked him to help her bring her child back to life.  He said he would if she brought him four or five mustard seeds from a family who had not experienced a death.  The woman went door to door for days, but every family had unfortunately lost a loved one at some point, and she returned to the Buddha empty handed.  Finally, she understood – her pain is universal.  You too will find that everyone has felt like you do at one time or another, and for that reason, people will want to help you.  Let them. 
  • Spend time with sober people. In some cultures and communities more than others, death is often accompanied by social drinking, and you may find that some people who are usually very conscious and respectful of your clean and sober path may forget all about it during an emotional time.  It’s up to you to stay on the straight and narrow, and therefore it is probably best to surround yourself with other sober people while grieving.  While attending services and on your own, be sure to have some sober people to turn to when the going gets especially rough.
  • Realize grief is not a straight line. Grieving has a lot of ups and downs.  One day you may feel that you are feeling better about things, but the next day you may wake up to a downturn that puts you right back where you started.  This can go on for days, weeks, or months, so just be aware of that, and have a plan in place for those especially rough days, and have people lined up to take your call when you need a shoulder to cry on.

How Counseling Can Help

As mentioned above, a period of grief or loss following a death is absolutely normal, but it can also be a recipe for relapse for individuals recovering from addiction.  Addicts need to be honest with themselves at all times about what is happening in their lives and actively pursue the support they need to get through difficult times.  There is truly no better time than during a loss to take full advantage of the support network that has been established during rehabilitation.  Remember, your future hinges on you staying sober, so doing the following things are of utmost importance if you plan to continue moving forward in your new and healthy lifetstyle.

  • Increase recovery meeting attendance. Although many people in recovery attend a lot of meetings when first getting sober, as they become stronger in their sobriety, attendance naturally decreases.  However, if you are dealing with a loss, there no time like the present to get back into the routine.  If you are going weekly, consider going twice weekly – or more!  If you are attending meetings daily already, you may want to attend twice a day when possible.  You honestly cannot get too much support regarding your sobriety when you are suffering the loss of a loved one.  Take advantage of this incredible, supportive resource whenever you can.
  • Work one on one with an addiction counselor. In addition to attending group meetings, it will likely help to meet with an addiction counselor privately as well.  If this is someone you worked with before, he or she likely knows you quite well and can suggest specific tips that may help you as an individual.  Furthermore, your addiction counselor can help you make a plan for difficult times, and has been trained to help you find ways to cope with your loss without the use of drugs or alcohol.
  • Go see a therapist. A grief counselor has specific training to help people through the death of a loved one, and can probably do more for you, in many ways, than a friend.  They know what to say, and how and when to say it, and can offer a non-judgemental environment for grievers to work through feelings of loss, depression, guilt, in-action, hopelessness and so on.  They can help you re-frame the loss in a healthy way and give you suggestions on how to move forward from here.  A study published in The Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment found that specific grief counseling for recovering substance abusers experiencing Complicated Grief helped to keep the subjects sober better than general group therapy did on its own in a time of loss.

Death of a loved one is extremely difficult for all – and especially for addicts in recovery.  The range and intensity of emotions is difficult to bear.  However, if you take the proper steps, and put your focus in the right place, you can work through your feelings in a healthy way, and come out the other side a stronger, wiser, and still healthy person.  It can be done.  You can do it.