When people work through substance-use issues, grief and loss in their lives can affect their journey. 

When Grief Intersects with Recovery

By AnnE O’Neil, Guest Contributor

Substance-use issues make a lot of things in a person’s life complicated. 

For example, I heard a guy at a meeting the other day say that he has “oversized emotions around normal, everyday life events.” I could relate to that. So what happens when we have to deal with something like grief, which absolutely stirs up oversized emotions in most people? 

I have worked with a number of bereaved people in recovery over the last five years and looked closely at the role grief and loss played in their substance use. Many of them had not recognized this link in their own histories. Some recognized it but added that they had not been given the opportunity to work with or focus on it. 

One young man said he clearly saw that his addiction took hold after his dad died, but when he tried to talk about it, his counselor said “That’s not what we are here for.” It was not clear what the counselor meant by that, but it certainly did nothing to help him along the road to recovery.

There are many things involved in supporting someone who is healing from a significant loss in their life while also strengthening the recovery process. Forgiveness, especially self-forgiveness, is important. Another issue is supporting someone’s ability to deal with the varied and sometimes huge emotions that are a part of grief . What I’ve found has significantly more impact than I would have expected is helping people see the similarities between grieving and being in recovery, especially early recovery. 

I usually don’t start this discussion until people have acknowledged, at least to some degree, that grief is a factor in their life. We then talk about how they are dealing with this double whammy. Both grief and early recovery are characterized by wide swings in emotions, a feeling that your brain is really not functioning anywhere close to optimally, and a stark sense that the ground has been pulled out from under you. People often wonder, “where do I go from here?”

Physically there are often shifts in sleep patterns, eating habits, and how your body feels. In addition, relationships are often strained or out of kilter as others deal with their own feelings about what is going on with you. Any one of these issues on its own can make people feel vulnerable, and experienced together, they can feel overwhelming.

At this stage of our conversation, people are often looking at me entirely disheartened. That is when I share the good news that many of the things they are learning and skills they are developing in early recovery are also applicable to healing from grief. 

For example, we consider that spirituality – the sense of some purpose to life and of some loving energy that supports life – is often vital in both the grief and recovery journeys. The practice of “one day at a time,” living in this moment, is also crucial because it is often all one can handle. 

Learning to build relationships with people you can trust to listen and be genuinely supportive without offering unwanted advice is crucial. The freedom to tell one’s story as often as needed is a huge part of healing. 

If you find yourself dealing with both grief and recovery, take your recovery program “back to basics” and consider how those familiar tools can help you heal from grief. Most importantly, be gentle with yourself. 

AnnE O’Neil is a Certified Grief Counselor who works primarily with people who have substance-use issues and are dealing with grief.

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