Friday, May 7, 2010

Good Grief

Can Grief be Good?

Dealing with grief and loss in recovery, while excruciating, can be the most significant experience to aid in personal growth and secure a strong relapse prevention foundation. “Pain is the touchstone to all spiritual progress.” 

Once you get through something that feels so painful that it should kill you, but you survive it -and you survive it without a drink or drug- you then know you can get through anything without a drink or drug. After all, isn’t that basically what sobriety is all about… learning to cope with feelings without picking up a drink or drug?

Grief kicks up all the toughest feelings we encounter in life: Shock, anger, despair, sadness, depression, loneliness, guilt, remorse, fear and anxiety. If we can endure the roller coaster of bereavement, a certain level of acceptance awaits us. “And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today”.

In early sobriety, we actually gain our first experience at enduring grief without a drink or drug. Having read Caroline Knapp’s memoir “Drinking: A Love Story”, it was easy to grasp the reality that we actually had a relationship with alcohol/drugs. Perhaps it was your best friend who betrayed you in the end, or your lover that abused you but you kept going back for more. 

Quitting that relationship cold turkey does produce grief effects. It’s the loss of your liquid courage, your instant oblivion, your coping mechanism to just about any undesired feeling or situation. Not to mention the loss of your perceived identity in relation to the drink- i.e. as the outgoing partier, or whatever the case may have been. The anxiety of “who will I be without my good ol’ pal, Captain Morgan (or Jack Daniels perhaps)?”

Stages of Grief in Recovery

First of course there’s the denial. With addiction, that’s a major symptom of the active disease anyway. With the loss of a loved one, especially if it’s sudden and unexpected, during the initial shock and denial it may actually not feel real – you think, how could something so awful be real? It feels like a nightmare and you just keep expecting to wake up from it.

In the stage known as Bargaining, closely linked to denial, we may try foxhole prayer... “Please God, if you just get me out of this situation, I’ll never [drink] again”. We sometimes flip this concept and it becomes what we’d call Reservations. Reservations are those dangerous exceptions you hold on to in which you justify “if this happens… then I can drink”. Like, I can stay sober but if so-and-so dies, all bets are off. That is how an alcoholic reserves her/his right to drink… under certain circumstances. This obviously is discouraged, and why newcomers are encouraged to drill it into their brains: “don’t drink even no matter what” or sometimes heard “don’t drink, even if you’re a$$ falls off”.

Anger is another stage of grief. The A.A. big book warns “if we were to live we had to be free of anger” … but anger is normal stage of grief; it’s what we do with it that matters. As always, step work with a sponsor helps. It is important when the anger comes to get it out, for example screaming when you can (i.e. alone in car so your neighbors don’t think you’re a lunatic), working out is great for this stage- focus on your anger as you lift weights or whatever exercise you engage in.

Typically just beneath the anger we find sadness. Depression is another symptom of grief. When going through grief, sudden bursts of crying are normal and common. Experience dictates that they become fewer and farther between when you actually let it out when these come on. You may fear “if I start, I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop” but this is not true. How often in meetings (or in general!) do we see people ashamed to cry in public? Letting it out not only will help you, but by example in showing your true feelings of grief you may help countless others too.

Is it the -ism Talking or the Grief?

In recovery, dealing with the depression phase of grief in particular can be confusing. There can be a fine line between grief talking and your disease (stinkin’ thinkin’) talking. How do you know when you are experiencing normal depression/sadness as a stage of grief, versus your addict mindset taking over which is serious cause for concern? Keeping your sobriety first- focusing on your program and keeping it simple. If you are working your program then you know you are not shifting into dangerous “dry drunk” territory and thus whatever emotions are coming up are likely to be the grief and they WILL pass and ease up with time. When in doubt, talk it out with another alcoholic and/or share on group level.

Note- it is common and normal to have thoughts of wishing you could join your lost loved on the other side. This can be scary to experience some suicidal-related thoughts. Again, share them. …Ideally with a professional. Be aware that unless these thoughts get to the point of having a specific plan you wish to carry out, you do not have to fear being institutionalized for sharing these feelings with a professional. It is a common phase of the grief. This too shall pass, really.

Remember that the stages are not always linear… Don’t panic if you feel like “wait, I got through this stage, why am I [angry, sad, whatever] again?” The stages don’t always progress in order and only once… much like the roller coaster of emotion experienced during your first year sober. Just remember that it will even out eventually, so hang on and use your support during the ride.

Tools to Support your Healthy Journey Through Grief


Thankfully for all the intense emotions that accompany grief, the 12 steps can be applied for support, relief, relapse prevention, and ultimately character growth. Throughout the stages of grief during sobriety utilize your support system as much as possible- friends, family, sponsor, therapist, whatever the case may be. It is easy to isolate during grief and feel very alone, which is particularly dangerous for recovering alcoholics and addicts. Whatever type of prayer and meditation you practice, use it! And again, share share share.


Intense and sudden grief in particular can lead to symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Seeking outside help is something of which Bill Wilson was a big fan. An effective scientific and holistic modality called EMDR is often utilized in the psychotherapy field to resolve PTSD and can be very helpful during your grief process. EMDR can help to safely accelerate healing and help process the various emotions during grief to help you on your journey to a place of emotional acceptance. To learn about this particular modality, visit the EMDR Insitute and you can search for licensed certified practitioners near you. 

Another phenomenal mind-body technique that is safe, non-invasive and effective on trauma is EFT, Emotional Freedom Technique. Read more about this modality that can be used best with a trained professional as well as for basic self-care and stress reduction yourself. Here's our article explaining Emotional Freedom Technique


Last but not least, grief takes a serious toll on us physically. Being so drained emotionally we can tend to neglect our physical health which during times of grief also suffers a great deal from the stress. Read this important related article on nutritional support during stress. A little support physically can really go a long way in supporting you mentally and emotionally during your stages of grief.


  1. What a great post!!!! So very well said...
    Thanks for your follow on my blog as well...I'd like to link to you directly...everyone should be reading you!

  2. Thank you, Melissa! I really appreciate that. Look forward to staying in touch. Thanks for the important work you do.