The Guide to Grief and Relapse

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Content Medically Reviewed by:

Dr. Patricia Sullivan MD MPH on 6/9/2021

Article Overview

Grief and Relapse

Grief and relapse is an important topic in the realm of recovery. Grief is a difficult process to go through after losing a loved one. However, it’s important to know that grief can develop in many different situations. Grief does not solely develop from death. Grief can be as simple as losing a friendship or love relationship. Multiple emotions begin to bubble to the surface and can sometimes outpour all at once. What makes grief harder is feeling it during or after, a time of recovery. The goal is to understand how to get through grief without a relapse. If a relapse does occur, you also need to be aware of the steps you can take to get back on track.

Each person meets face to face with grief due to loss in their lifetime. For someone who is in recovery, this can complicate the process and make abstinence more difficult. The good news is that grief is a process, and by understanding the process, you can understand where you are and what are your needs. In this guide, we discuss the stages of grief, what to expect from those stages, and how to get support when a recent (or maybe not so recent) loss is affecting your recovery.

If you are experiencing grief and have relapsed, give us a call at 8889060952 to discuss treatment options. It’s free and confidential. You’ll be connected immediately with an addiction treatment specialist.

Article Contents

ocean with sunlight peeking through the clouds to symbolize hope after grief

5 Stages of Grief

Grief is a unique experience for everyone. It is dependent on each person’s unique circumstances, relationships to the individual lost, and their way of coping. However, to be specific, Merriam-Webster defines grief as a “deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement.” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed the 5 Stages of Grief to describe and make sense of the stages that are commonly seen in grief. Keep in mind that the 5 stages of grief are not linear, meaning that the order that they come in and the time spent in each stage is different depending on the person.

 There are five steps of grief recovery that people go through:

Denial and Isolation

Some things can be so detrimental to the point that you feel overwhelming disbelief. Your mind will develop ways to block out or deny the reality of the loss you’ve experienced. If memories of a loved one tend to pop up in your head, you may try to push them away. Going through a breakup also produces similar experiences, and memories of your best times may be haunting you. The vivid memories bring forth denial and may push you to isolate yourself. You might feel that no one understands what you’re going through. For some, this is a very odd stage in the grief process—some report feeling as if they are disassociating and drifting off mentally to cope.

Anger

As the reality begins to seep in more and more, you may begin to feel a genuine sense of anger. Angry at the circumstances that led to the loss, angry at God, and angry at people who may have indirectly or directly caused the loss of your loved one. In the case of medical illness, you may feel angry towards the medical providers as you feel that perhaps they did not do what they could have to save your loved one. You might also have anger towards the situation because you feel that it’s unfair. You think, “why me?”, “Why did this have to happen to me?”. This is a very common experience in those who are grieving.

“Why did this have to happen to me? “

Bargaining

The bargaining stage involves finding a way to regain time with your lost loved one by bargaining with a higher power or self. You might beg God to bring them back, although deep down, you know this isn’t realistic in the event of a death. In situations of a breakup, this is a very common stage because there is a possibility of reunification over time. However, the important thing to know and be realistic about when you’ve reached the point of no return, and there is no way of going back to the relationship. Then, you can begin to process more healthily and lead yourself down the ending processes of grief.

Depression

During the depression stage, it may feel as though you have a storm cloud following you. At this point, the truth is starting to kick in. You’re starting to realize that your bargaining to regain time with a lost loved one won’t work and probably will never work. Sadness continues to overwhelm you, and your initial feelings of isolation might come back in full force.

Acceptance

The light at the end of the tunnel seems closer than before. Time passes, and you realize that although you’ve lost a loved one, you’re still able to move on and proceed with daily life. Some individuals don’t reach this part or don’t enjoy it if they reach it. Some people feel guilty when they begin to reach this stage. This is especially true in the event of a death. You might feel “how can I move on when they will never have a chance to live? Does this mean I’ve forgotten about them?” However, once you attain acceptance, the loss of their loved one becomes a memory but no longer something that you dwell on to the point where it affects your daily life.

“How can I move on when they will never have a chance to live? Does this mean I’ve forgotten about them?”

The truth is that your loved one would want you to reach acceptance. Your loved one would not want you to carry the difficult burden of going through the stages of grief without end.

Types of Grief

To understand what type of grief you’re going through, we’ve listed the different kinds of grief below for you to go through. Understanding grief is a great way to see how grief and relapse can connect themselves and result in a dent in your recovery. Read through to find out which type of grief you relate to the most.

Cumulative Grief

Culmulative grief happens to you when you experience losses in close succession

Cumulative grief is a collection of grievous memories that were never resolved through healthy coping mechanisms. According to Dr. Alejandra Vasquez, a professional grief counselor, cumulative grief usually “happens to you when you experience losses in close succession.”

Some examples of cumulative grief include:

  • Multiple deaths of loved ones
  • Divorce
  • Loss of career

Complicated Grief

“Complicated grief is when the grief stays heavy, and the weight never seems to get lighter”

Complicated grief is when someone has difficulty transitioning from extreme grief to a lighter feeling of grief. As we know with the five steps of grief, not everyone gets to the point of acceptance with their grief. There are even some individuals that have a hard time passing the first step of grief. These complications are what is known as complicated grief.

For individuals battling addiction, dealing with grief and loss in recovery can contribute to complicated grief. Mayo Clinic describes some of the signs and symptoms of complicated grief as:

  • Intense sorrow, pain, and rumination over the loss of your loved one
  • Focusing on little else but your loved one’s death
  • Extreme focus on reminders of the loved one or excessive avoidance of reminders
  • Intense and persistent longing or pining for the deceased
  • Problems accepting the death
  • Numbness or detachment
  • Bitterness about your loss
  • Feeling that life holds no meaning or purpose
  • Lack of trust in others
  • Inability to enjoy life or think back on positive experiences with your loved one.

Anticipatory Grief

“Anticipatory grief happens when you’re able to prepare for the loss before it takes place.”

Anticipatory grief happens before the actual event resulting in grief takes place. When this type of grief occurs, anyone expectant of that grief knows that it’s coming and tries to prepare for it (ex: someone on their death bed from a long fight with cancer).

For someone with an addiction, watching someone go through hospital treatment due to an overdose or any other addiction complication can attract anticipatory grief. The grief can occur after seeing things such as tubes, cords or even encountering one with the inability to do things such as use the bathroom themselves.

The symptoms of anticipatory grief include:

  • Sadness and tearfulness
  • Fear
  • Irritability and anger
  • Loneliness
  • A desire to talk
  • Anxiety
  • Guilt
  • The intense concern for the person dying
  • Rehearsal of the death
  • Physical problems
  • Fears of loss, compassion, and concern for children

Delayed & Inhibited Grief

“Delayed grief sneaks up on you, sometimes long after the loss has taken place”.

Delayed grief doesn’t activate immediately after losing a loved one, but instead, “…feelings grow stronger with time after having lost someone or something, or they find it harder to cope months later than in the initial aftermath of the event.”

It’s common for individuals to turn to vices that delay the grief as much as they can. Unfortunately, the process of grief and loss in recovery creates conflicting decisions. An individual with an addiction can find themselves at a crossroads between completing comeback or resorting to addiction.

Inhibited grief is similar to delayed grief by proxy of turning towards distractions. Inhibited grief doesn’t have to include an addiction. It can be someone overworking, exercising more than usual, or even going out to specific events all the time in an attempt to escape the possibility of grieving.

Disenfranchised Grief

“Disenfranchised grief is characterized by isolation and feeling misunderstood.”

Those experiencing disenfranchised grief feel like the people around them don’t understand their grief. They may even fear that others see their grief as minuscule in comparison to their burdens.

Although binge drinking or drug addiction is bad for your overall health, anyone battling addiction may justify their usage under grieving circumstances.

Absent Grief

Absent grief is a prolonged denial of losing a loved one. Some people can suppress their grief of losing a loved one for a long time. Eventually, they go through their life with the notion that the loss never happened in the first place. It is truly remarkable how long this grief can take to become present in these types of situations. The loss is essentially pushed back into the mind, not to access for quite some time. This certainly is a self-protecting type of grief.

Exaggerated Grief

During exaggerated grief, the griever doesn’t seem to get past the beginning steps of the grieving process, eventually feeling “lost and unable to cope.”

Coping Mechanisms

Vices such as drugs and alcohol are often used to cope with the loss of a loved one. Specifically, anyone battling addiction may use vices in abundance in an attempt to fully process the grief that they are feeling or about to feel. What’s Your Grief writer Litsa Williams describes two consistencies involving substance use and grief:

  • 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 they generally do a good job numbing physical and emotional pain.

This is why grief can be dangerous for recovery. Grief and relapse can be a complex topic, but understanding its ins and outs is especially important because it can help you be aware of what you’re feeling. Practicing healthy coping mechanisms for grief and loss in recovery is the safest and most efficient way to heal. Yes, it can be a difficult task, but it’s worth it in the end when you have your sobriety alongside healthy methods to complete the grieving process.

Sobriety allows you to make decisions and filter out whatever feelings and emotions you might have about anything. There is a reason why you are going through recovery. At some point, you decided to change a lifestyle of addictive habits by seeking help through recovery.

Addiction is like a safety net with a giant hole in the bottom that you don’t notice until it’s too late.  Once someone comes face to face with grief and then relapses, things can spiral out of control quickly. The good news is that you don’t have to relapse. You must utilize and cling to the coping mechanisms that you’ve developed throughout your recovery. If you feel that you do not have the adequate tools to handle this situation, seek them out through grief therapy. Your quality of life and your fate depend on it.

Grieving Without Relapsing

You cannot simply let go of whatever you are grieving. If you don’t care about whatever could potentially cause you to grieve with healthy coping mechanisms, you are free to continue with your day to day life. However, the steps to grief recovery is a necessary process when grief exists.

Grieving affects the emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual well-being of each person it touches. Recovery is hard enough on its own. You may have heard the saying “we don’t pick up, no matter what”, and this saying still applies in situations of grief. If you’re just beginning to experience grief, or even if you’ve been experiencing it for some time and are barely hanging out, you must reach out for help. If you’re on the edge of relapse, it is understandable that you are having a difficult time.

Remember, whatever you’re experiencing seek out the opposite. If you’re experiencing isolation, get close to others and build a connection. If you’re depressed, try participating in an activity that reminds you of the goodness of life. If you’re experiencing anger, practice love and understanding in the best way you know how.

Your Action Plan

  1. Reach out and schedule an individual therapy appointment with a bereavement counselor.
  2. Locate and attend free grief support groups in your area.
  3. Notify your recovery support system immediately that you’re grieving.
  4. Begin to participate in activities that make you happy as soon as you’re able.
  5. Draw on the tools you’ve learned in recovery, if you don’t have the tools to get through, reach out and get help.
  6. If you experience a relapse, get help immediately by calling us at 1(888) 906-0952. 

If you are having issues with grief and loss in recovery, and want to know how to grieve without relapsing, take these tips into consideration:

  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 are 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 may wish to start there.  Keep in mind that coping is more than just therapy and groups (though those are great). Coping can be creative expression, making a memorial, 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 triggers unexpectedly arise.

If You Have Relapsed

If you have already relapsed, all is not lost. Grief is a tremendously hard part of life to deal with. It is easy to want to run back into what was considered your primary (although temporary) source of comfort. You must immediately call upon help to get you through this time. Once a relapse has been set into motion, you’d be surprised at the speed at which you can end up right back where you were (or worse) before you began the process of recovery. Stop now and give us a call at 1(888) 906-0952 to speak with a specialist. The call is private, confidential, and you are under no obligation to go through with treatment. You can get your questions answered by people who understand your situation.

About the Author

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Susana Khai Spiegel

Susana has over 5 years of experience writing content about addiction, mental health, recovery, and treatment. She’s been in recovery for over 5 years, after battling addictions that sought to claim her life. Susana specializes in Organic SEO and Content Marketing. She utilizes her experiences to create impactful, insightful, and educational content. Connect with her on Linked-in.

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