Grief and Loss in Recovery

Despite the Christmas Cookies and New Year kisses, countless people carry pain with them throughout the holidays. It is one of the toughest times of the year for many. Amidst the festivities, one’s losses from the previous year, or even further back, can seem particularly difficult. This may include the loss of a loved one, family strife, and, believe it or not, even the loss of one’s substance use.

Everyone Suffers Losses

Grief and loss are, unfortunately, a universal experience. We will all suffer losses. We all grieve. Yet we must also remember there are many kinds of losses and many ways to grieve them. Grief is a process, not a feeling. Understanding your grief will help you, in the words of Parkdale Center’s Dr. Terry Harman, “reach a point where you can remember the pain without reliving the pain.” To do that, we all must go through our own process of grieving.

Consider the following types of loss:


This includes loss of physical objects or the loss of familiar surroundings.


This loss is related to changes such as moving, divorce, or the change or loss of personal friendships.


This is the loss of an emotionally important image of oneself. It may include loss of a dream or ambition, the loss of what might have been. This loss is experienced entirely within oneself.


This is the loss of health that carries with it a loss of autonomy.


This is the loss of a specific social role such as retirement or the loss of place in a social network.


This loss is felt when someone who performs a function in the family or work system is no longer present, whether by natural death, suicide, layoff, termination, transfer, or geographical relocation.

All of these losses are real and valid, and a person may experience a loss in multiple ways.

Everyone Grieves in Their Own Way

There are also many ways to grieve, and similarly, they too are all valid and may intertwine. If a loss is sudden, tragic, violent, or devastating, for example, the added trauma of that loss means the process of grieving may look different, take longer, and require outside assistance such as counseling.

In early recovery, you may be surprised and distressed to discover you are grieving the loss of your substance of choice and all the related changes that come with sobriety. For many people used to riding the emotional rollercoaster of their substance use, that complete preoccupation with their substance of choice absorbed them, and letting it go feels unnatural and deeply uncomfortable. You also may have suffered difficulties and major life changes because of your substance use. That substance became the most important thing in your life, and now, in early recovery, you feel the loss of that which consumed your energy and strength.

In her essay 5 Ways We Grieve Therese J. Borchard describes the work of Susan A. Berger, who defined the following types of grief in her book The Five Ways We Grieve: Finding Your Personal Path to Healing after the Loss of a Loved One.

“Nomads are characterized by a range of emotions, including denial, anger, and confusion about what to do with their lives. Nomads have not yet resolved their grief. They do not often understand how their loss has affected their lives.

Memorialists are committed to preserving the memory of their loved ones by creating concrete memorials and rituals to honor them. These range from buildings, art, gardens, poems, and songs to foundations in their loved one’s name.

Normalizers place primary emphasis on their family, friends, and community. They are committed to creating or re-creating them because of their sense of having lost family, friends, and community, as well as the lifestyle that accompanies them, when their loved one died.

Activists create meaning from their loss by contributing to the quality of life of others through activities or careers that give them a purpose in life. Their focus is on education and on helping other people who are dealing with the issues that caused their loved one’s death, such as violence, a terminal or sudden illness, or social problems.

Seekers look outward to the universe and ask existential questions about their relationship to others and the world. They tend to adopt religious, philosophical, or spiritual beliefs to create meaning in their lives and provide a sense of belonging that they either never had or lost when their loved one died.”

Grief is a Path to Healing

These modes of grieving were defined to describe the ways we respond to the death of a loved one, but they apply to other kinds of losses as well. To accept our grief and move forward, we all take different paths to reconcile ourselves to loss. There is no one way to grieve.

While the loss of a substance of choice is indeed difficult, as those in recovery grieve it, they can look to the future and choose to develop healthier relationships with themselves and others without the substance. It is essential that we don’t let our grief drive us into our caves and cut ourselves off from others. Talking about your pain with others--whether a religious leader, a good friend, a 12 Step group, or a professional mental health counselor—will help you make sense of your grief so you can move ahead. While you may never fully forget your loss, your life will improve if you remember grieving is a natural process. It can transport all of us from pain in the present to brighter futures.

Thursday, 30 December 2021 15:10