Experiencing Grief in Early Recovery

photo-1458762671984-b6d9ff0b327bWhen you complete an addiction treatment program at Bellwood Health Services, our clinical team will tell you what to expect in early recovery and will often advise you to not make any major decisions once you leave treatment. But life has a way of throwing you a curve ball when you least expect it, such as the loss of someone beloved. Recognizing your feelings and using the skills you learned while in treatment can help you manage and get through difficult times.

We spoke to Wendy Cope, MA, CPsych Assoc., Team Leader of Outpatient and Continuing Care at Bellwood Health Services to discuss this important and difficult experience. Wendy Cope states that loss can happen in many ways, “I had a recent case with a client who had a number of losses in a short period of time. This client was going through the loss of a parent, loss of a job and needing to move out of a home. As the client put it, ‘life continues to happen’. At Bellwood, we tell clients to not make major decisions in early recovery but its difficult not to because life continues in recovery.”

Wendy Cope referred us to the Kubler-Ross Model, which was introduced by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to describe the stages a person goes through when experiencing grief. It’s important to note that the stages aren’t linear and individuals can experience them in any order or no order at all.

The Five Stages of Grief

  1. Denial: This is usually a person’s first reaction to grieving. An example could be a person in denial about a diagnosis and what’s wrong with them. Wendy Cope explains, “A person who has a substance use disorder is in denial about what’s going on. The person is not allowing themselves to see the danger they are in.”
  2. Anger: A person may question, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ They feel frustrated and often get frustrated with those around them. Wendy Cope clarifies, “With substance use disorder, a person will show frustration by saying things such as, ‘This isn’t fair! I’m too young.’ There is an anger recognizing they have a substance use disorder and why they have it.”
  3. Bargaining: This is a way people to try to avoid the cause of the grief. Negotiation becomes part of their lifestyle. Wendy Cope provides a scenario of what bargaining may sound like. “An example of this is talking to a higher power to admit you have a disease and saying, ‘I will stop using and get healthy again but I’ll still hold on to social drinking.’”
  4. Depression: Usually a person recognizes that bargaining isn’t working out. They may say things like, ‘I don’t want to face the sadness and give up this life that I have with addiction.’ According to Wendy Cope, one of the things individuals are most afraid of in early recovery is boredom. An individual in early recovery will often question if they’ll ever have fun again.
  5. Acceptance: A person will give up the bargaining and accept the condition. They tend to move towards a more spiritual place. For a person in early recovery they have moved to place of acceptance that they have a disease and that they must find a way to manage it.

Wendy Cope firmly believes that talking about grief and loss are important to address in early recovery.

“It really pertains to anyone in early recovery whether it’s a death of a loved one, trauma, breakup of a marriage; these changes are moving towards a grieving stage. Often individuals in early recovery don’t understand feeling this emotion because they are use to numbing emotions. They aren’t sure how to articulate what they are feeling. They have all these emotions and no longer have their drinking or drug of choice. In early recovery, coping skills are still being learned so it’s easy to relapse and rationalize the use of substances again. Clients need to have support whether it’s through Bellwood’s Continuing Care Program, AA, best friends or therapists- they shouldn’t have to deal with this alone. To be able to recognize your in a stage of grieving is another key because many times we don’t in addiction.”

Wendy Cope shared some warning signs that can help you recognize when you aren’t dealing with grief well:

  1. Emotional irritability.
  2. Sleeping problems.
  3. Changes in appetite.
  4. Social isolation. Not wanting talk about certain subjects.
  5. Hopelessness: “Nothing is going to change.”
  6. Belief that you’ll never feel or get better.

How to Get Help

A family doctor might be able to recognize some of the symptoms of grieving and direct you to see a therapist. Wendy Cope states that getting professional help can provide insight as to how a person can cope with a loss. A therapist can be someone that can actively guide you through your grieving.

Individuals experiencing loss have a tendency to avoid talking about it and confronting it. For family members or friends of people in early recovery, Wendy Cope suggests that if you recognize a family member or friend is struggling to talk to them. “Anyone who notices something should caringly ask. Sometimes the person doesn’t have to see a professional. It might be enough to have someone who cares to ask how they are doing. Be supportive and perhaps to take action to help them with their grief.”

Ways to Help You Manage Grief

GQ3A92CS3E (1)“Talking through the loss with someone you really trust can help. Verbalizing the loss is therapeutic in itself. Tell the story and be authentic. Other things that can help include making a ritual. Such as visiting a special place you shared together. This can help you think about them. Creative artistic expressions such as painting or music are things that are cathartic of those emotions you may be feeling” says Wendy Cope.

Wendy Cope states that time is a blessing when it comes to grieving. “One should ask ‘How am I doing on this?’ Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

If you’re in early recovery and you’re having a difficult time coping with grief please call your counsellor or sponsor.

Bellwood is an addiction treatment centre in Canada that helps people stop drinking and recover from addiction. Our counsellors can be reached at 1-800-387-6198.

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