Preventing Relapse During Grief & Loss

For anyone with an addiction, grief and loss are significant triggers for relapse. What are the stages of grief and how can understanding the emotions associated with grief and loss help you avoid relapse?

The Stages of Grief: Not Necessarily In This Order

Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s seminal work on grief is widely regarded as the gold standard in the field. What are the stages of grief in her model?

  • Anger
  • Denial
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Initially, Ross’s model for grief was explained as a process in which people experienced loss and processed their grief in a series of stages. They experienced each stage in sequential order, completed it, and then passed on to the next stage. In the years since her initial work was published, more and more people have found that, while the model is useful for normalizing the wide range of feelings experienced during grief, these feelings are not always sequentially organized and predictable. On any given day in the midst of grieving over the loss of a loved one or a relationship that has ended, you may experience intense anger and deep depression, and also have thoughts of bargaining. These feelings tend to cycle rather than come in stages that resolve upon completion. In other words, the emotions we experience in loss and mourning are more like riding a roller coaster than walking up stairs.

Forewarned is Forearmed

How does this information about the grief process help you avoid relapse? Knowing what to expect can help you prepare for it. Here are some tips for managing the cycle of intense and overwhelming feelings that accompany loss while also staying clean and sober:

  • Emotions are not behavior. Feeling the desire to pick up a drink or a drug isn’t the same as doing it. Forgive yourself for having those feelings and understand that feelings just happen. They are part of the process. You don’t have to act on feelings, just feel them.
  • Express your feelings, no matter how raw or “ugly” they may be. Write in a journal, or draw, paint, sculpt with clay; use any other means that works for you to let the feelings out. Being angry at the person who left you might not be rational, but don’t judge. Emotions aren’t supposed to make sense.
  • Be aware of triggers to re-experiencing this loss. Anniversaries, birthdays, and other special days may be triggers, as well as places, songs, even scents. The triggers may come fast and furious at first. Expect to be sideswiped by memories and emotions when these triggers hit.

There is no correct way to survive grief and loss; some days white knuckling your way through it is the best you can do. Make use of all your supports, including 12-step meetings and psychotherapy. You may never exactly “accept” the loss, but eventually it is possible to live with it and feel good again, despite the loss.

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