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:
- Consider losses that may come up for you and the reality that you may feel emotions you haven't felt.
- Seek professional support, not just around recovery but around grief.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
We wrote a book!
After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books: