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grief in recovery

5 Ways to Cope with Grief in Recovery

Grief is a normal part of life and at some point in our lives we will all likely experience the loss of someone or something they care deeply about. Grief can result from illness, death, or the loss of a relationship, and can lead to overwhelming feelings of sadness, numbness, changes in sleeping habits as well as difficulty concentrating and with daily activities. These symptoms of grief may resemble that of depression however the grieving process is a normal response to a loss and over time the feelings should subside. Grief in recovery can be especially challenging. 


For people in recovery, these overwhelming feelings can potentially trigger a return to past, addictive behaviors. If a person is in active addiction when they suffer the loss, it might delay their response to the grief and delay their ability to move through the normal stages of grief.


What is the Grief Process?


The five stages of grief was introduced by Swiss American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her book On Death and Dying (1969) and was inspired by her work with terminally ill patients as they came to terms with their own death. This model has been adapted to apply to their grieving family and friends and has been largely accepted as a model to understand the process of grieving. 

  • Denial – Denial is the body’s natural defense mechanism that helps us to process the initial shock and emotional pain associated with loss. Usually this stage is characterized by a certain level of numbness and disbelief, where the person is unable to acknowledge that their loved one is truly gone. In some cases, the person may actually try to cling to a false, preferable reality or explanation.
  • Anger – Anger usually follows denial and can result in lashing out at others in an effort to blame something or someone for the loss and the situation. In this stage, the person can also blame themselves which leads to intense feelings of guilt. This anger and guilt is particularly dangerous for those in recovery and can trigger relapse and past addictive behaviors.
  • Bargaining – Bargaining is a way for the individual to think of alternative scenarios than reality. Questions of “what if…” or “if only I had…” often preoccupy the thoughts of the individual instead of accepting the reality of the situation.
  • Depression – Many of the symptoms of grief mimic those of depression. These feelings include sadness, emptiness, numbness, pain and can be associated with crying, changes in appetite and sleep. These feelings typically decrease with time as a person moves towards the final stage of grief, acceptance. 
  • Acceptance – Acceptance is the final stage of grief where the person comes to terms with their loss. This is not the same as forgetting, however it is the ability for the individual to return to some semblance of normalcy. Once a person has accepted, they are often able to reminisce over fond memories of their loved one without the same overwhelming pain that they initially felt.


Understanding the natural process and steps of grief can be helpful to those in recovery so you have a general awareness of the feelings and emotions you may be experiencing. Since grief can be a major trigger for relapse, being cognizant of these feelings that you may experience can be helpful to avoid reverting back to addictive behaviors that may worsen your grief. Below are a few suggestions for coping with grief in recovery.


5 Ways to Cope With Grief in Recovery

It is important to recognize that grieving is hard for everyone, but that there are different types of grief and we all handle it differently. Thus, if the feeling of loss is too overwhelming, it is helpful to speak to a professional or seek medical help. This is particularly important if the grief does not seem to progress through the normal stages, and the person does not reach a stage of acceptance. This grief is often much more severe and intense and does not improve over time leading to symptoms worsening or a person’s inability to return to their normal activities. In these cases, it is important to seek professional help as unresolved grief can lead to relapse.


  • Speak to those you trust or seek a professional – It is helpful to lean on your support network during these difficult times. Sometimes the presence of someone else can help soften the loss by helping you know that you are not alone. 


  • Take care of yourself and stay healthy – While it may be difficult at first, forcing yourself to stay healthy through a healthy diet and exercise can help with the grieving process. The typical triggers for relapse- “HALT”-hungry, angry, lonely and tired can be amplified during the grieving process. Since it may not be possible to avoid all of these triggers, making sure that you eat (even if you may not have the same appetite), engage in brisk exercise and go to bed at normal hours can be helpful for taking care of yourself.


  • Confront emotions and allow feelings – Remembering that grief is a normal and inevitable part of life, and that it is OK to feel sad after a loss is important for those in recovery. Preparing for these emotions can be helpful since in the past, individuals with substance use disorder are accustomed to blunting emotions using substances or alcohol. Responding to loss may be one of the first times that a person in recovery is confronted with strong emotions and can be a difficult hurdle. Being patient and gentle with yourself is important.


  • Practice mindfulness and embrace spirituality – Prayer and meditation are two helpful tools for handling grief and loss, especially when feeling lonely or sad. These coping mechanisms can help to provide a sense of peace or calmness despite overwhelming emotions. A relationship with a higher power and a spiritual awareness can also be helpful during the grieving process.


  • Anticipate grief triggers – Finally, being aware and mindful of the potential triggers that might bring back the feelings of grief can be important so that you can prepare yourself for the associated emotions. Talking about your loved one, seeing photos, going through their belongings, or key milestones where they will not be here can be difficult times. You can prepare yourself by talking to a professional, a trusted friend or a loved one so that you can express your feelings and develop options for coping. 

Get Help in Florida

If you feel like the grief is too overwhelming and you are at risk of relapse or If you or someone you care about has a problem with grief and substance or alcohol use, Genesis House can help. Our trained professionals will walk you through the admissions process and make sure all of your questions are answered. The first step is admitting you need help, and is often the hardest. Once you take that first step, there will be a team on your side to help you be successful in your new future.