Staying sober is not always easy – especially when you are going through a significant emotional experience such as grieving the loss of a loved one. In some ways, recovering from the loss of a family member, close friend or beloved pet can be just as difficult as getting sober in the first place. If you have recently experienced a significant loss it is absolutely essential that you take extra care to protect your sobriety. The feelings that grief brings about are very unpleasant and difficult to effectively navigate. As you move through the five stages of grief – denial, guilt, sadness, fear and anger – it is important that you are doing everything you can to ensure that your sobriety remains intact. As emotionally uncomfortable as the grieving process can be, it will be made all that much harder if you make the decision to pick up a mood or mind-altering substance.

Staying sober through adversity can be difficult, seeing as most individuals are triggered by the presence of uncomfortable feelings and emotions. There is a good chance that you used drugs and alcohol as your primary coping mechanism before you made the decision to get sober. If you experienced loss, you reached for a chemical substance without a second thought in order to numb out the emotional pain. It is important to note that while chemical substances might effectively anesthetize your feelings for a short amount of time, drinking and drugging is never a solution – doing so will always exacerbate and worsen these feelings in the long run. It is best to tackle your emotions head on while acknowledging that while things are painful right now, they will get easier with time and you will eventually heal thoroughly and completely. No uncomfortable feeling lasts forever – even grief.

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The Five Stages of Grief

Grief refers to the intense sense of despair that is felt immediately after a significant loss. Grief does not always occur after the death of a loved one. Some people might experience grief after a long-term romantic relationship ends, after the loss of a career or after the loss of a significant and valuable possession, like the loss of a home to a wildfire. Regardless of what you are going through, you will likely experience what are referred to as the “Five Stages of Grief.” Psych Central published an article detailing these five stages and explaining that the length of time it takes to work through each stage always varies on a person-to-person basis.

The Five Stages of Grief are as follows:

  1. Denial and isolation – The first stage of the grieving process is to deny the reality of the situation. Experiencing a significant loss is a major shack to the system, and it is often far too much for the brain to process straight away. For example, if you lose a loved one in a car accident, you might initially think to yourself, “This cannot be happening. There is no way this is real – something must have gotten mixed up. My loved one will show up after work and we’ll laugh about the mix up.” Denial is a common defense mechanism, one that softens the initial blow of the tragedy.
  2. Anger – As the denial begins to wear off and the reality of the situation comes to light, it is common for the individual who has experienced the loss to move into a space of anger. You might be angry at your loved one for leaving you, or you might be angry at yourself for “letting it happen.” Of course, rationally speaking, there is no sense in attempting to place the blame anywhere – when significant loss occurs it is no one’s fault. Sadly, it is just a part of life. When feelings of anger bubble to the surface it is simply because sadness and grief are being deflected.
  3. Bargaining – This stage of the grieving process is typically short-lived, and includes a series of “what if” and “if only” statements. “If only I would have been there to stop the accident from happening.” “If only I would have gone to the store instead, my loved one might still be alive.” “What if I was a little bit nicer this morning, what if I would have said ‘I love you’ before they left.” Guilt and bargaining often go hand-in-hand. Once anger subsides the individual is typically left with intense feelings of self-blame and personal responsibility.

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  1. Depression – There are two many degrees of depression that tend to go hand-in-hand with grieving. The first degree is very intense, and short-term psychiatric intervention is typically required. You might fall into a deep depression and require some antidepressant medication to help you function at a normal level as you process your loss. The second degree of depression is a deep sadness, but not one that is entirely crippling. Regardless of how you feel during this stage of the grieving process it is essential that you surround yourself with loved ones and seek any professional care that you may need.
  2. Acceptance – Regardless of how long it takes you to get to the final stage of the grieving process, gaining acceptance provides a certain level of relief that not everyone is afforded. Those who turn to chemical substances to help them along the grieving process might find themselves stuck in a place of anger or denial long-term, for example. In order to accept your current circumstances it is crucial to maintain a clear mind and process all of the uncomfortable emotions as they arise.

Staying Sober While Grieving

How does one stay sober while undergoing this wide range of uncomfortable feelings and emotions? At Immersion Recovery Center we have several helpful tips, seeing as most of us have experienced grief and sobriety simultaneously and firsthand.

  • Seek additional support – If you feel as if you could benefit from additional one-on-one therapy sessions during this tumultuous time, set up extra appointments. Seek out support groups for people who have recently experienced loss. Do what you need to do to process the way you are feeling.
  • Employ the healthy coping mechanisms that you learned in medical detox and inpatient addiction treatment – While in treatment you learn healthy coping mechanisms and relapse prevention skills. Look back and actively employ what you have learned.

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  • Speak to others who have been through something similar – An article published by the US National Library of Medicine titled, “Dulling the edges”: Young Men’s use of alcohol to deal with grief following the death of a male friend” explains how common it is for men who have experienced loss to immediately turn to chemical substances. Look towards other like-minded individuals who have been through what you are going through and who have stayed sober through it.
  • Up your recovery program – Do you typically go to one 12 step meeting every day? Make that two or three. Do you typically pray and meditate once in the morning and once in the evening? Try praying and meditating in the afternoon as well.
  • Do not fall back into old, self-destructive behavioral patterns – It is all too easy to begin isolating, avoiding your program of recovery and engaging in other self-destructive behaviors as you grieve. Make sure you are staying on top of things and not resorting back to old ways of thinking and behaving.
  • Reach out for help if you feel like you are in an unstable place – If you feel especially shaky in your sobriety, call up a friend or get to a meeting immediately.

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