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Managing Grief in Recovery

unhappy woman sitting on floor and crying at home

When a gunman took the lives of 49 people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Americans joined together in mourning. For some, this was a deeply personal loss – a close friend or a family member passing horrifically and unexpectedly. For others, the incident triggered a wave of grieving – for the state of the world in general, the individuals who lost their lives, and the fear and anxiety that come with knowing that it will likely happen again.

Grief after a tragedy is normal. In fact, there are few things that are designated as an “abnormal” response in the weeks and months following a great loss. Sleeping all the time or not at all. Avoiding social situations. Skipping out on work. Forgetting to shower or eat. Crying or not crying. People process grief differently, and there is no right way to get through the initial phases of transition into a life defined by a new status quo.

When you are in recovery, however, there are a few things you must avoid when grieving – namely, drinking or using drugs – and when you are in crisis, it can be one of the most difficult times in your life to stick to those principles. But it is possible.

Reach out for Support

If you are struggling with staying sober due to grieving, do not delay in reaching out for support. Though your first instinct may be to curl up at home or avoid contact with anyone, fight that instinct and immediately connect with your therapist or another substance abuse treatment professional, preferably one who you have been working with and who knows you. You can benefit by:

  • Talking about how you are feeling and focus on getting help to function in day-to-day life
  • Sharing about the person you lost or how a tragedy like the Pulse mass shooting is impacting you
  • Brainstorming about ways to handle specific issues that are difficult for you
  • Just getting out of the house, making it to therapy, and being with someone else for an hour

It is important to connect with other people regularly even if not frequently. A sponsor, a friend, a family member – check in from time to time as you begin to process your loss.

Stages of Grief

Though everyone’s experience with grief will vary, there are generally certain emotions, or stages, that people often encounter in the process. These include:

  • Denial: It is natural to first respond to news of a tragedy with denial. “It can’t be that bad. The news must be wrong.” Avoiding discussion of the topic in an attempt to process it more slowly is often one of the first stages of grief.
  • Anger: When it becomes clear that it is impossible to deny the loss, anger is often the next reaction. Why did it happen? Who is to blame? The bearer of the news is often in the line of fire, as are others who are close.
  • Bargaining: Trying to figure a way out, how to fix the situation, or how to prevent it from happening again is normal as people try to regain control over their lives.
  • Depression: Grief and sadness can manifest in a number of different ways. People may worry about how they will go forward in light of the loss and how their lives will change. Internally, they may also struggle with saying goodbye to their loved one.
  • Acceptance: In time, most people will come to accept the passing of their loved one. Though they may never truly “get over it,” they will learn how to live with it. For others, however, this stage does not come easily. It is then that treatment is recommended.

Signs of Grief Disorder

Complicated grief can occur when the initial phase of intense grief symptoms does not pass within a few months. For those who continue to live in a state of heightened grief for months on end, it can mean a diagnosis of complicated grief disorder. Signs of complicated grief can include:

  • Inability to focus on anything but the passing of their loved one
  • Refusing to let go of reminders of that person
  • Intense pain over the loss that persists
  • Difficulty accepting that the person is gone
  • Feelings of numbness, bitterness, hopelessness, irritability, and/or an inability to connect with others
  • Inability to trust others or to enjoy spending time with others

Terrorism Spawns PTSD

It is important to note that tragic events like the Pulse shooting do not have to impact someone on an immediate level to trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in an individual – and in that person’s family members as well as first responders and rescue workers. Losing someone in a terror event or having a terrorist attack strike friends, in your neighborhood or in a group that you identify with, can trigger PTSD symptoms. Many who experience these issues turn to drugs and alcohol in an effort to manage symptoms, a behavior that will only make it more difficult to process the trauma. If PTSD is indeed the cause of symptoms, it is important to seek immediate treatment.

Treatment for Co-occurring Disorders

Those who continue to drink and use drugs regularly and heavily in response to a trauma or loss are at risk of accident under the influence, including accidental overdose as well as the development of a substance use disorder. This can further exacerbate the underlying grief issue, making it necessary to seek treatment for both problems at the same time.

If you are struggling after the experience of a trauma, reach out to Recovery First today to find out how we can help.

About The Contributor
The editorial staff of Recovery First is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More