I’ve heard it said (many times) that pain—and I mean emotional pain—is a natural part of life. In other words, just by the fact we’re living a human existence here on Planet Earth means we’ll all eventually have to face situations that are really painful for us, that tug deeply at our heartstrings and drive us to experience much anguish and sorrow.
However, in the rooms of recovery, a commonly heard saying is: “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”
What this particular message seems to be conveying is that our suffering often results when we’re fighting or resisting the reality we’re being called to squarely face. In addition, it’s saying that when we accept our situation as it is, as well as the painful feelings we’re experiencing, then we find ourselves struggling less and suffering less, and the pain moves through us more freely without being blocked by our resistance.
Now, the “loss” we can feel in recovery is not necessarily experienced solely when someone (or a beloved pet) passes away. When we’re new in recovery or in treatment for a substance use disorder, our grief may be about the loss of our drinking or drug use itself or the people we associated with our drinking/using or the “lifestyle” we had while we were drinking or using.
Too, we can experience the more concrete losses of jobs, family members, friends or home. In my case, the most devastating grief I experienced was the loss of my relationship with the woman I’d lived with for over 10 years, due to the destructive effects of my addiction.
Grief can occur when we have to let go of anything that’s mattered to us, anything we’ve been deeply attached to. But what’s vitally important to recognize is that grieving is the natural way we process our loss. In essence, it’s an integral part of healing what’s hurting us inside. And in that light, grieving itself can be an important part of our recovery.
So the question arises: How do you do grief?
Olivia Pennelle, a recovery coach, says, “The experts in this field all agree, being with what you are feeling and allowing it to be felt is most important. We cannot escape grief, but we most certainly can live through it.”
Elizabeth Kubler Ross, the pioneer of healing from loss and grief, authored the book On Death and Dying, which outlines five stages of grief. These stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. And though here we’ll refrain from a deep exploration of her proposed stages of grief (you can learn more about them by reading her book), we’ll briefly review some tips you may find helpful if you’re in recovery and experiencing grief.
(Note: These stages are not necessarily experienced chronologically—you may go through them in a different order than they’re presented here—and not everyone goes through all five stages when they grieve.)
DENIAL is your mind and body’s way of letting you cope by not giving you more to process than you can mentally handle at any given time. But, obviously, it’s important to get past the denial stage and understand that the loss really did occur. It can be wise to keep open-minded and willing to listen to those close to you as they seek to support and comfort you.
ANGER is not an uncommon emotion when you’re experiencing grief and loss. Don’t try to hide this emotion. Instead, let it out (constructively), so you can work through it faster. Give yourself the time you need to feel angry and express it in healthy, productive ways.
BARGAINING—thinking of things you could have done differently in the belief it would have kept someone from dying or leaving you—is actually trying to negotiate your own painful feelings. It’s important to remember, though, to keep open to going forward and working through what you’re experiencing, so that eventually you stop obsessing on the past and get back to the present.
DEPRESSION, though heavy and hard as it can be, is a normal (and necessary) stage in the grieving process. After you’ve stopped bargaining, you’ll probably realize there’s nothing you can do to “fix” the loss or bring someone back. The reality of the situation can bring you down lower than you’d felt before. Allowing yourself to feel that and to experience it means you’re not trying to keep your emotions and feelings at bay. When you process them and allow them to come up freely, you’ll be able to heal faster.
ACCEPTANCE is typically the final stage of grief. But it doesn’t mean you’re automatically okay with everything that’s happened. You don’t forget about your loss or your loved one. Acceptance simply means you acknowledge and accept the reality that the loss happened. For example, the person/pet is not coming back. You certainly may not feel great about it, but coming to this realization and knowing you can’t do anything to “fix it” can help you to let go of any lingering feelings of anger or depression.
Because you’ve allowed yourself to consciously move through the experience of grief—and stayed clean/sober through it all, reaching out for help whenever necessary—you can now start to move on with your life with greater freedom and strength.