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Giving up drugs and alcohol can feel akin to losing a way of life. Clients in addiction recovery often go through a grieving process that can be challenging to work through. Family members may also face severe stress and anxiety in having to reorient household dynamics and learn ways to cope with the recovery process. This article will discuss the elements of grief and why it’s important to work through this process. 

Why Does Recovery Provoke Grief? 

Grief is a strong human emotion that is typically associated with a devastating loss, such as the death of a loved one. It may be strange to apply grief in the context of addiction recovery, but for those going through it, this is an all-too-familiar emotion. 

Individuals in treatment for addiction, as well as their families, may experience painful emotions associated with the transition involved in the recovery process. The client may be working through their own challenges like cravings and underlying trauma, while their family members may be learning to cope with their loved one going through such pain. They may also need to shift their behaviors and create a home environment that supports the client’s recovery

A Major Life Transition

Imagine losing the things that bring a sense of security or order to the world. Recovery is a significant life transition that can leave someone feeling lost and fearful. Working through the loss of who someone once was is an essential step toward recovery; grief prevents a person from moving forward.

What Does a Person in Recovery Grieve?

 A person who has committed to giving up substances may also be giving up many elements of their life that held value to them. They may mourn the loss of:

  • Old friends
  • Temporary euphoria from substances
  • An attachment to a place 
  • An identity and lifestyle 
  • Relationship dynamics or roles
  • Drugs or alcohol routines
  • The comfort or distraction from life 
  • Freedom from accountability and responsibilities 
  • Avoiding difficult emotions with substances

A Note on Family Dynamics

Unhealthy dynamics can develop in households with addiction. Consequently, family members often play a key role in recovery. Members may have to make drastic changes to their patterns of interaction. For instance, a parent may have stepped into the role of the enabler, allowing the addiction to continue by providing financial support. They will need to learn how to stop enabling drug-seeking behavior when it occurs. This can be easier said than done and often requires support in family therapy.  

Why Is the Grieving Process Important? 

Even though grief is considered a negative emotion, it can also be a tool for progress. 

Grief is also a process by which a person expresses their anguish in different stages and eventually accepts reality. A person who understands the grieving process and has expectations for what this could look like may be more open to their emotions, allowing them to happen without as much resistance. This knowledge can also help a person seek help when grief has become debilitating. 

The 5 Stages of Grief

The classical model of grief includes the following stages in sequential order: 

  1. Denial: Being in disbelief and feeling numb toward what happened
  2. Anger: Becoming angry with the person, situation, or higher power 
  3. Depression: Falling into a depressive state
  4. Bargaining: Making a truce with a higher power in order to get back the person or thing 
  5. Acceptance: Eventually accepting the reality of the loss and that it can’t be changed 

However, it is now understood that overcoming grief is not a linear process for many people. A person does not have to experience grief in this exact way. Someone can experience depression before anger, for instance. Other models talk about “domains” that a person can move back and forth between at various points in their recovery journey. 

Can “Complicated” Grief Be Harmful?

Grief can cause dysfunction if a person never really grows despite their losses. Some continue to hold onto the past. This condition is called “complicated” grief. 

Complicated grief can cause intense yearning for whatever has been lost. A person may be pushed to their emotional edge without healthy coping techniques and support. In the context of addiction recovery, they may become obsessed with thoughts of substances or related aspects, which can be a sign of mental relapse.

What’s Going On in the Brain?

An article published in Science Daily titled Addicted To Grief? Chronic Grief Activates Pleasure Areas Of The Brain discusses how a group of researchers examined complicated grief by comparing the brain of individuals with complicated grief and those with normal grief. Their findings showed that the brain’s reward network was only activated in those with complicated grief. This is the area also involved in addiction. 

A Rewarding Cue 

The researchers theorized that the beloved — whatever that might be in this context — can stimulate a “rewarding cue.” Once gone, complicated grief can trigger cravings for the reward response that can be obtained by thinking of old memories or encountering physical reminders like sentimental items, familiar scents, and nostalgic music. Similar to drugs and alcohol, cravings for things that once brought happiness can make it difficult to stay committed to recovery.

Grief is a response to a tragic loss, including substances. Letting emotions surface is crucial in order to get to a state of acceptance. An individual in treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction is giving up a whole way of life, including daily routines, friends, and an identity. This can be very painful even in circumstances without addiction. West Coast Recovery Centers is an outpatient treatment center in Southern California. We have been treating clients with addiction and co-occurring mental health diagnoses since 2012. Our programs are licensed by California state and nationally accredited through the Joint Commission. We are proud to provide high-quality services to those in need. We understand that grief can play a tremendous role in a client’s success in recovery. Our clinicians are equipped to guide clients through this difficult journey. Call today to learn how we can help at (760) 492-6509.

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