When Sobriety Meets Grief (and grief meets sobriety)

I have wanted to write an article about the convergence of grief and sobriety for a long time. However, the topic kept falling to the bottom of my ‘potential post’ list because it is complicated and I really wasn’t sure where to begin. Each element – substance use, recovery, and grief – is complex in and of itself. Put them all together and things become really convoluted. Regardless, today I want to finally start the conversation. Because even if I can’t cover all of its nuances, something is better than nothing and this is a topic that is way too often overlooked in conversation about grief, sobriety, and recovery.

How are grief and substances connected?

There is no one cause for substance use.  People start using substances for a diverse range of reasons and whether this use turns into abuse, dependence, or addiction really depends. However, there are two important consistencies related to this conversation.

Consistency #1: One trend that seems true for most human beings is that we generally don’t like to feel physical or emotional pain.

Consistency #2: One trend that seems true for most substances is that the generally do a good job numbing physical and/or emotional pain.

This may not explain why a person starts using substances in the first place, but it is usually an effect that becomes obvious pretty quickly

Enter grief, stage left.

When someone dies the emotional pain is unimaginable.  For many, grief triggers the most distressing pain they have ever felt and in response to pain, human nature kicks in and a person may think, “How can I make this pain go away?”

How a person answers this question really depends on their unique coping strategies, support, access to resources, stress level, tolerance of emotional pain, and past history of negative coping.  However, some who have used substances in the past, even if they’ve only used casually, may feel that grief is a really appropriate time to take advantage of their pain numbing effects.  If a person turns to a substance to cope with grief on a consistent basis, all of a sudden someone who never had a substance problem can develop a problem, and someone who already had a substance use disorder can see that disorder get even worse.

But if you realize substances are becoming a problem, you can simply get things under control, right?

Not exactly.  Substance issues, regardless of how they start, can be very tough to get under control.  If sobriety and long-term recovery were easy we wouldn’t be facing a major substance use epidemic in this country.  There are a lot of complex neurobiological challenges to achieving and maintain sobriety.  There are practical issues and then there is the mountain of emotional challenges that build once someone stops numbing.

Numb? But I’m not even cold.

Whether a person was using before the death or the death instigated the substance use, using substances often mutes a person’s ability to feel, process, and find ways to cope with emotions.  As we already mentioned, this is why substances can seem appealing – they feel like a quick fix for immediate, difficult emotions.  The problem is, when you avoid tough emotions by numbing them, they don’t just magically go away.  Wouldn’t that be great if they did?  Part of grief is figuring out healthy ways to live with the pain of loss, making that pain easier to feel and manage over time.  That is something that can be extremely difficult to do while using substances.

Experiencing grief in sobriety

When someone gets sober and starts the recovery journey, it’s not uncommon for grief emotions to come bubbling to the surface.  Whether their loss was five months ago or five years ago, whether they experienced one loss or a number of losses over time, a person in recovery often finds themselves facing the full depth of their painful emotions for the first time. No surprise, the onslaught of the emotions can feel so overwhelming that a person’s first instinct is to do what they have been doing for months, years, or even decades: numb with substance.

Identifying coping that doesn’t come in a bottle, pill, or powder

Sometimes a person abuses a substance because they don’t know how to manage painful emotions any other way. Sometimes a person may know in theory how to cope and care for themselves, but using the substance seems a lot easier.  Couple these scenarios with a neurochemical dependence and this can be a recipe for relapse.  If a person doesn’t learn how to manage pain, discomfort, and distress (emotional and physical) in their recovery, they will continue to feel totally overwhelmed and ill-equipped to deal with pain when it comes up.

Hey, where’d my support system go?

When a person stops using a substance, isolation is common.  While using the substance, people often drift away from friends and family who don’t use that substance.  At the very least, emotional distance is often created, at worst years or decades worth of deep conflict, broken trust, or even estrangement can occur.  Whatever the situation, the person can feel like their “old” friends and family aren’t there for them in the same way which can feel isolating.

On the other hand, while abusing a substance people often make new friends in the community around that substance.  Whether they are “bar friends” or friends a person uses other substances with, these are often close and meaningful relationships.  Sobriety and recovery often force a person to distance themselves from these friends in a very deliberate way. Over time, these friends may have become the person’s primary support, and suddenly they have to cut off the relationship in order to stay sober. This is a loss in and of itself and, worse still, others may act like the loss of those friends isn’t as significant or important because those individuals were also using substances.

YES.  So what do I do?

This is a complicated question.  However, if you are in recovery or thinking about getting sober, here are a few tips:

  1. Consider losses that may come up for you and the reality that you may feel emotions you haven’t felt.
  2. Seek professional support, not just around recovery but around grief.
  3. If you’re feeling isolated, seek community.  It may take time to rebuild relationships with old friends and family, but make efforts where it is possible.  Consider AA, NA, and SMART recovery meetings as places to meet other people who are sober.
  4. Develop new ways to cope.  We have a whole section on coping, so you can start by checking out the posts there.  Keep in mind that coping is more than just therapy and groups (though those are great) and can be creative expression, memorialization, and finding ways to take care of yourself.
  5. Know your triggers and have a plan.  This is crucial for recovery in general, but with grief, it becomes doubly important.  Grief triggers can quickly become relapse triggers.  Know what your triggers are, make relapse prevention plans around those triggers, and have a plan for those moments when unexpected triggers arise.

We really just scratched the surface here, so leave a comment with your experiences and observations so we can keep the conversation going! We’ll probably write more on this topic down the road, so subscribe to get our new articles right to your inbox. 

July 6, 2017

12 responses on "When Sobriety Meets Grief (and grief meets sobriety)"

  1. Your article is very well written and truly identifies what I have been through for the last 7 1/2 years. My wife was diagnosed with an incurable lung disease. She stayed alive for 3 years and passed away one month before our 42nd wedding anniversary. I drank some before all of this, but once it became apparent she was not going to be healed on this earth, I started to binge drink after my wife was asleep. I drank as an escape because the love of my life was fading away, and my prayers and efforts were of no avail. I took care of her mornings, evenings, and weekends while working full time. After she passed on to heaven, I drank just heavily enough to be numb at home but keep my job until I retired. One minute I was telling myself I should be happy she was healed and breathing heavenly air. The next 30 minutes my soul wept to hold her hand, talk to her across the table, and hear her laugh. After retiring, I lost all desire to do anything but drinking. I tried to hide it from my grown family and my friends. It wasn’t until I reached rock bottom that I prayed for deliverance. I realized alcohol was not my friend. It has been 3 months since I quit all alcohol. I tried the “only occasional drink”, but for me that was a route to failure. Now I am seeing a counselor, helping at my church, and have started doing my artwork for the first time in 7 1/2 years! I thought grief would be over after a time, but it is and always will be with me. I lost a part of my life, my heart, and my soul. So many times I have wished she were here to hold her grandchildren. Some of them were born just in the last three or four years. I look with happiness and envy at couples laughing, talking, and holding hands particularly if they are my age. I occasionally dream about her. She told me in one dream that she is alive and “doing fine”. I got to hug her before I awoke. Nothing in life prepared me for this grief. Please pray for me. Thank you for taking the time to write the article. It spoke to me that I am not in this alone. NOTE: One thing that helped on my road to a better life was creating a family photo album. It was such a joy to confirm that the two of us went through thick and thin together and raised a wonderful family.

  2. I lost my husband of 23 years 3 years and 3 months ago due to complications of a bone marrow transplant. Actually, I lost him a couple years prior to that due to sickness and disability. It was crushing to watch my vital, beautiful, intelligent husband suffer; unable to do what he enjoyed due to those complications. Both of our daughters were away at college. We were both in recovery from alcoholism, active in our AA community and able to be of support to each other at home. He died 4 days shy of his 29th anniversary. I had 23 years of sobriety when I first relapsed while he was ill – familiar, albeit poor, coping skill. We had a lot of high powered narcotics in the house and I fell in. I was able to share this relapse with him a few weeks before he became critically ill and eventually died. Our entire relationship had always been based on God first, sobriety second, our marriage and family 3rd. Without the first 2, we wouldn’t have anything else. My shame and guilt were enormous. Unfortunately I had become very isolated in my grieving for the husband and life I had and felt unsafe sharing at meetings and with my AA support system because some of my feelings towards my husband and his illness were very dark and ugly. I feared this would get back to him and I just could not do that to him. He was already feeling so guilty for “messing up our lives”. Flash forward to the few months leading up to his death. He became very ill a few days before Christmas and except for about 10 days in the next 2 1/2 months, he was in ICU, a bone marrow transplant unit or a nursing home. He came home to die and was in hospice care for about 4 days. The holiday season is extremely difficult for me. This past season – I let my AA friends and my family know I was really struggling. I reached out and no one reached back. I fell into a depression, full of self pity and isolation. I drank. I started smoking again,(after 25 years of a smoke free life). I did these things because at the time NOTHING else seemed to be working and I felt as if my grief would consume me alive. It took finding a therapist, changing up my AA mtgs, cultivating friendships with different women, asking for help on a regular basis, consciously making contact with my AA people and re-establishing my relationship with God. I had to jettison people from my circle. I had to learn to take care of me and that meant some hurt feelings. I found out very early on after my husband died that the people I thought would be there for me weren’t and people I never dreamed would be supportive and kind were. I clung to those folks. I still cling to them. My father in law committed suicide 13 months after my husband died; my father died of cancer 6 months after that and my stepfather in law died 10 moths after that. My in laws are extremely toxic people and came to the conclusion I was euthanizing their son and brother. It was all my fault he died. I thank God they live 12 hours away. I am happy to say I now have 3 months of solid sobriety. The urge to drink or use drugs has been lifted from me , just for today. My program and AA involvement are strong. I am able to share what I need to with my closest friends in the AA program without fear. I have a wonderful psychologist helping me navigate all the weirdness of my in-laws, my daughters’ grief and their reactions to life without their dad, my father in law’s suicide and the deaths of my dad and stepfather in law. I knew drinking, drugs and smoking were NOT going to fix anything. I just didn’t care anymore and I was so very weary of hurting and sadness and despair. It was the only thing I hadn’t tried after my husband died to cope with my grief. Please let me be an example of what does not work. I hope my experience can spare another pain. I am extremely lucky to have made it back to sobriety. I could have just as easily died. That is not a legacy I want to leave for my daughters. Thank you so much for addressing addiction/grief. It is a really big issue for a lot of people.

  3. Thanks for broaching this topic. I agree that the surface has only been scratched. Another facet of this topic is the person with many years of sobriety suddenly facing intense grief. The recovering alcoholic/addict suddenly realizes they have a guilt free pass. What better time to drink? What better excuse? Who could fault? Don’t doctors, funeral directors and so many others have pills to help you sleep or “cope”? Let’s continue this conversation.

  4. I need grief counselling. I didn’t know how much losing my little terrier mix, Lucy, would hurt & trigger emotions I thought I worked through. She crossed her Rainbow in January & I’m not doing well.
    Thank you for letting me vent.

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      I am so sorry for your loss, Tina. We have information here on locating a counselor:

      We also have a post on losing pets (furry-family, as I like to think of them!)

      Take care and I hope you find some support here on our site.

  5. I lost my daughter to suicide just over a year ago. I am so grateful that I was sober (21 years) and had the support of my AA friends. Sobriety enabled me to be present for my family and deal with a lot of the difficult decisions that had to be made. Drinking never crossed my mind – unlike 20+ years ago when I numbed the death of my brother and father with heavy drinking. I strongly believe that you need to really feel and acknowledge your grief in order to work through it. Sobriety is helping me do that, one day at a time.

  6. Would love to hear a discussion of when grief meets long term sobriety. I was sober for 28 years when my husband suddenly died and, 20 months later, I have not gone back to AA. The messages and lifestyle of the program are ingrained in me and I have not wanted to drink, but I cannot bear hearing how everything happens for a reason and how God’s plan works out for the best. I no longer have the tolerance that I had to listen to and assist with life’s small problems, nor do I have the energy to add meetings and service responsibilities to my life.

    • Last year, two weeks before my 25th AA Anniversary, my Mother died after I lived in & took care of her for the last 8 years of a rare blood cancer … I’m just starting to breathe again … I will get my 26 year chip in a few weeks because death (even though she was my best friend) will not take my sobriety & my life away too … I do not agree with the BS that people (in & out of the rooms) spout – Everything happens for a reason / It’s God’s plan or His will – This Earth is NOT what God planned … It’s what humankind did when believing in Evil. Pain, sickness, murder, rape, death, etc. etc. WAS NEVER GOD’S PLAN. Don’t feed into that lie … Remember, you do not have to agree with everyone’s opinion (especially the sickest of the sick) … I continue meetings in order to stay connected to the actual program (164 pgs) and I seek outside help (as the program tells us) in areas that are outside the realm of ‘staying sober’ (ie: Grief). I have embarked on a different journey that isn’t the same for those who have not lost & even for my own father & siblings. I am starting to see a deeper relationship with my God unfolding. I do not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it (including the pain of grief). I hope this helped you and pray you find peace & serenity.

    • I have been sober for 13, 700 days, one day at a time. I have had my share of loss, grief, and bereavement in my life, drunk and sober. AA has been a staple in my life, as have men’s circles. While I can appreciate the well meaning comments from others, sometimes they can be hurtful. Frankly, I have been on the giving and receiving end of insensitive comments. Yes, just because I got sober doesn’t mean I don’t still make messes, the only difference is, I can own it and do my part to clean it up.

      Two pillars of the program that have served me well is working with others and trying to perfect and enlarge my spiritual life. There are a number of ways to do each. Attending a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous is a sure fire way to find someone to help, to get out of self by focusing on another who needs more help than I might. Sure, I need what I need, and having a strong support system is critical. I need a place where it is safe to bring all of me. Often I find if I am spiritually fit, I can go most anywhere without consequences. At times families can be the toughest, but understanding we all are doing the best we can with the tools we have can help a great deal.

      One thing is for sure, isolation is not a solution. The only things that seem to grow in the dark are mushrooms and fear. For me anyway, I need to keep putting my sadness, grief, fear, etc. into the light. Often, it opens a dialog with an other who needs what experience, strength, and hope I have.

  7. This is a very real subject! I am currently going through this as we speak. I lost my mother and best friend in my arms, moved to a distant state and lost my husband unexpectedly from a heart attack at age 44 all within 6 months. I was a 39 yrs old orphan, widower and mother alone with a 5 yr old little girl!

    I had had a drinking problem prior due to loosing my brother from possible suicide and my father to suicide 6 weeks before my wedding. Several other deaths impacted my grief and sobriety as well.

    I had agreed with my husband to seek help with my alcoholism and was in treatment for 1 1/2 days when I received a call he had passed at work. I left treatment and lived aimlessly for several months until I finally asked for help after my husband’s family took my daughter away from me and drove her several states away.

    After many financial and emotional sacrifices, I am pleased to be sober today and can look at the past as a benefit to my being. Although my loved ones will never be forgotten, they made me who I am today and I am forever grateful! Today I am a proud mother, friend, family member, member of the community and most of all……survivor!

    If I can do it, anyone can do it! I pray my story helps.

  8. I’m not sure this qualifies as a connection to the article however, I would like to add how alcohol fit into the second or third week after the death of my son. I am not a drinker, ever. I often wondered why and how people turn to alcohol in times of stress, sadness or any upset in life. Why would anyone want to alter their state of mind when wrestling with an already painful situation. Yes, judgemental and short sighted for sure.
    Well, after the death of my son I didn’t think I was hurting enough, ( I was hurting terribly) so I thought ahhh alcohol. I didn’t want to numb the pain, I wanted to feel it deeper. I wanted to go as deep inside my soul to the core of my being to feel as painfully as I could. I drank more in those few days than I had ever had in my life. It was not pretty. It was not helpful. I was sick and messy. After a few days of this behavior I realized my sober pain was as deep as my drunken pain but without the mess. It took a few days to get over being sick but I figured out pretty quickly alcohol was not the answer to what I thought I needed. What I needed was for my son to be sent back to me and that was not going to happen. I won’t ever judge others for trying to escape their pain in any way, but I learned a valuable lesson for my own grief.

  9. It is painfully true that people turn to alcohol and other substances in order to numb feelings. I’ll be brutally honest with my experience:

    When my husband passed away, I didn’t drink or eat for weeks. As a matter of fact, before he passed, I was giving up alcohol completely because we were trying to have children. After a few weeks, more and more changes came into my life – I had to break my lease since I couldn’t afford my apartment; I moved in with my parents at the other side of town, ending up far away from my friends; my commute to work tripled; I hated the town I was living in; family was coddling me and I had no privacy or alone time. Then I was prescribed antidepressants, which really messed with me at first. I seriously felt like my life wasn’t mine and it wasn’t worth living. I wanted to hide the pain, especially when headed to “that house”, so I started drinking on the train home, then started sneaking alcohol into the bedroom and continued drinking at night. I would go through four bottles a week.

    Another reason why I turned to drinking is because I was purposely killing myself. Since my doctor and therapist repeatedly told me not to drink alcohol with the medication, I did the polar opposite – I took it with booze, hoping that there would be some deadly interaction. So far, the only thing it did is made me jittery.

    As my life is starting to get back on track (now I live alone, close to friends, and my commute is better), I’ve been reducing the drinking. We had another loss in the family and I now realize that in order to be there for them, I have to be careful of how much and when I drink. Also, I don’t want to let friends or family down after all they did (and doing now) for me while grieving.

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