As addicts, many of us use substances such as drugs and alcohol to self-medicate, to avoid feeling stress and pain, and to dull emotions. As a result, many people with substance use disorders are not accustomed to having to handle the high levels of stress and pain accompanying grief and loss. People with substance use disorders are more likely to suffer complicating issues, including PTSD and mental health disorders. At the same time, pain and negative emotions can be triggering, causing even individuals well into recovery to relapse in an attempt to cope with the emotional pain and stress of loss.
Losing someone you love will affect you deeply. If you’re in recovery, it’s important to recognize that, to recognize your own vulnerability, and to take steps to deal with grief and loss in ways that don’t include relapse. No matter where you are in your journey to recovery, grief and loss are complex. There is no one right way to navigate losing a loved one. However, these 7 ways to deal with grief and loss will help you to do so without resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms like drugs or alcohol.
1. Recognize Your Emotions and Pain
The earlier you are into recovery, the more difficult your emotional journey will be. Most of us experience emotional ups and downs as the body withdraws from substances, and this process can take months. Grief itself causes emotional ups and downs, ranging from sadness and depression to anger, hurt, and confusion. These emotions can come and go and may not tie into how you feel about the person you lost. Coping with them will be difficult.
It’s important to recognize how you feel, to accept that it’s okay to feel that way, and to process those emotions. You’re allowed to feel whatever you feel about your loss, and you have to give yourself time and space to process that. Friends and family can be extremely helpful in offering support and sharing emotions. Many self-help and support groups also offer spaces and meetings dedicated specifically for discussing loss and sharing pain to audiences who have experienced similar loss.
The longer you spent using drugs or alcohol, the more difficult processing emotions will be. Keep in mind that emotions are normal and natural, they aren’t necessarily bad, and you don’t have to make them go away, even when they hurt. Experiencing your pain and learning to cope with it and move on is important if you are to deal with that emotion rather than simply covering it up.
2. Talk About Cravings
If you are in recovery, suffering a loss or other traumatic event makes you more vulnerable than ever. Negative emotions like pain and sadness are often triggers for cravings, which can cause you to relapse. Many of us are also accustomed to self-medicating, and the first rise of a painful emotion will likely cause you to want to reach for your former addiction to dull the pain. It’s important to recognize those cravings and to give them a place. The sudden rush of dopamine and serotonin in the brain from using will temporarily dull the pain of loss, but it will come back and worse than before.
Discussing how you feel, and how your loss likely makes you want to use, with either friends and family or your self-help group is important. Even if you’ve been clean or sober for more than a year, you’ll likely still experience cravings or a need for release or something to make yourself feel better. It’s always a good idea to ask a sober peer for talk time if you’re participating in 12-Step like AA or NA, or a self-help group like SMART Recovery. If you're not in a recovery support group, ask a close friend or family member to be there for you to verbalize you cravings of you have them.
3. Invest Your Time in Happiness
Most of us want to do nothing when experiencing grief and loss. It’s natural to want to hide or be alone or isolate yourself. This is very often one of the worst things you can do. Coping with grief and loss can require some alone time, but it’s important to set a specific time in which you can behave in this way and then make yourself go out and do things, share your grief with friends and family, and invest in things that make you and others happy.
For example, you can spend time on a hobby or sport, can spend time with loved ones, can spend time specifically helping friends and family, or otherwise investing your time into things that will improve your life. While you might not feel like it, it will help you to feel better. It will also help you to avoid emotions of loneliness and boredom that also contribute to relapse. This also means seeking out closure where possible, so that you can move on.
4. Seek Out Professional Help
You can’t always cope with grief on your own. This is especially true if you haven’t been to rehab or behavioral therapy which could help you to develop the coping mechanisms to deal with grief and loss in a healthy way. If you aren’t coping, you may want to seek out a therapist or psychologist who can offer that guidance. If you do so, it’s important to inform them of your past history of drug or alcohol abuse, the steps you’ve taken to move past it, and trauma you experienced while using, because these factors will impact your treatment and how your recovery is handled during the process.
5. Take Time to Understand Grief
Most people expect grief to happen in certain ways, to last specific amounts of time, or to occur in a specific way. This is almost never accurate. Your grief may not occur right away. It may manifest as anger. You may experience a rollercoaster of emotions which you can’t predict or control. Your past history of substance abuse will likely make this worse. The truth is that there is no correct way to experience grief and no one way to do so. All you can do is take steps to cope in healthy ways, to communicate how you are feeling to others, and ask for help when you need it.
6. Exercise and Eat Right
It’s natural to not want to do anything when you feel bad. You might also develop unhealthy eating patterns of either eating too much, getting takeout, or not eating at all. This is the worst reaction for someone in recovery, because it prevents you from getting the nutrition you need to feel good.
Taking care of your health will boost your natural levels of dopamine and serotonin, will keep your health up, and will keep your energy up. Persons in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse are especially vulnerable to nutritional problems as well, which can contribute to depression, fatigue, and even difficulty regulating emotions.
You should also consider exercising at least 30 minutes per day, which will impact your health in similar ways. For example, exercise in addiction recovery produces natural serotonin and dopamine. It also improves blood flow, which will improve energy levels.
7. Make Time to Destress
If you’ve been to a rehab program, then you’ve likely been through cognitive behavioral therapy, maybe taken a mindfulness-based stress reduction class, and learned other skills to cope with stress. If so, they are more important for you now than at most other points in your recovery. You should take the time to make space to destress.
This can take the form of mindfulness and meditation, a fun sport you enjoy, or simply taking time to chill out with friends.
Recovering from a loss is complex and painful without the added complication of recovering from a substance use disorder. If you are in recovery, it’s important to take steps to ensure your continued coping, so that you maintain your recovery and stay clean and sober.