Coping With Grief in Recovery

Naomi Carr
Morgan Blair
Written by Naomi Carr on 26 January 2024
Medically reviewed by Morgan Blair on 26 January 2024

Grief is a natural and common occurrence for many people and can cause a range of challenging emotions. This can be especially difficult to manage while going through addiction recovery and can cause triggers and emotional challenges that may require additional support or coping strategies.

Coping With Grief in Recovery

What is grief?

Grief is the emotional response we feel when faced with the loss of someone or something of great significance. It can include various types of loss, which can feel different from person to person. Grief can cause several different emotions to occur, individually or at the same time, which can change from day to day. Some of the common emotions associated with grief include:

  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Shock
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling numb
  • Loneliness
  • Guilt
  • Resentment 

These emotions can feel very strong and overwhelming at times, with some days feeling more difficult to manage than others. Overcoming grief can be a long process and these emotions can be present and changing for several weeks, months, or years. Generally, grief eventually begins to subside and can become easier to manage with time. 

There is no cure-all solution to overcoming grief and the time it takes can vary from person to person. Similarly, people will typically differ in the ways they experience and cope with grief. 

Some people might experience the 5 stages of grief, first described by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross , which include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Some people will experience these stages in a different way or not at all, as grief is often not linear and can change every day.

Grief can often impact a person’s mood, behavior, functioning, sleep, and energy. Some people might struggle more than others to overcome grief and might need professional support in managing their emotions.

Common types of grief

Grief is commonly associated with the death of a loved one, although it can also be related to any type of loss. This can include:

  • Death of a pet
  • Loss of a job
  • Loss of a certain responsibility or role
  • Retirement
  • Ending a friendship or relationship
  • Loss of health following an illness or injury
  • Loss of money or financial security
  • Miscarriage
  • Loss of a loved one’s health following a diagnosis of illness
  • Loss of a sentimental object
  • Loss of a family home

People going through addiction recovery might also experience a range of specific types of grief, such as:

  • Losing friends to overdoses
  • Saying goodbye to friends met through rehab or support groups
  • Changing therapists or counselors during treatment
  • Letting go of certain aspects of their previous lifestyle, such as places or behaviors that were associated with their substance use
  • The loss of the substance and its effects

How can grief affect recovery?

Often, substance use is caused or worsened by difficult emotions or experiences and is used as a coping mechanism or a way to numb or hide from these emotions. As such, a person in recovery might find that the negative emotions caused by grief act as a trigger, prompting them to turn to substance use.

Also, grief might be caused by the loss of a loved one who had been a motivating factor in a person’s abstinence. It might be a loved one who had been encouraging or acting as a support system throughout the recovery process. In these instances, the individual might feel that they have lost the ability to remain sober with the loss of this person.

Throughout the recovery process, emotional challenges that arise can be detrimental to maintaining abstinence. As grief causes such intense and long-lasting emotions, it can be one of the hardest challenges to face during this time and may result in relapse if the individual doesn’t feel that they have the support or skills to cope.

Tips for coping with grief and preventing relapse

Everyone copes with grief in different ways and might require different types of support to manage these emotions while coping with addiction recovery. The following could be helpful tips for people going through these experiences.

Be patient with yourself

Unfortunately, grief won’t just go away if it is ignored, so it is important to allow yourself time to feel and process the emotions this loss has caused. Attempting to suppress these emotions could make them feel worse or last longer. 

Some days will feel more difficult than others and it may feel that you are not making progress in overcoming your grief. Accepting that grief is not linear and that your emotions will change over time can help you accept your bad days without feeling frustrated or triggered to turn to substance use.

Speak to a professional for support

Speaking to a professional grief counselor or therapist can help you understand the emotions involved in the grief process. Many people in recovery utilize therapeutic interventions for their substance use, so this can be a good opportunity to discuss grief and how to manage it alongside the recovery process.

Speak with your addiction sponsor or support group

Some people have a sponsor to contact when they feel triggered or are part of a support group for addiction recovery. If this is the case, these can be safe and appropriate places to discuss the challenges of managing grief alongside recovery. This can help you express and process negative emotions and seek advice and support.

Look after your general well-being

Coping with grief can cause a decline in self-care, such as poor sleep and nutrition, a lack of exercise, and isolation from others. It is important, especially when managing ongoing addiction recovery, to ensure that your physical and mental well-being is maintained.

Making time to get good quality sleep, eat healthy meals, and engage in regular exercise can improve mental and physical health, increase resilience to challenging emotions, and also act as a good distraction from negative emotions to help prevent a relapse.

Celebrate your loved one

If your grief comes from the loss of a loved one, it can be cathartic and therapeutic to spend time celebrating their life. This could be by spending time alone looking at photographs and thinking of happy memories, or meeting with friends to talk about your loved one and the significance they had on your lives.

This can help provide some positivity in a difficult time and encourage you to spend time with others rather than being isolated, which may help prevent triggers and relapse.

Plan how to adapt to your loss

This loss might have a big impact on your daily life or your motivations to remain abstinent. Take some time to consider how you might adapt to these changes. This can help you feel prepared for upcoming challenges and provide a sense of control over your recovery process while you continue to grieve.

Resources:

  1. Marie Curie. (2023). Grieving in Your Own Way. Retrieved from
  2. Barnardo’s. (n.d). 7 Things You Need To Know About Grief. Retrieved from
  3. Kübler-Ross, E. (1970). On Death and Dying. Tavistock Publications Limited.
  4. Tyrrell, P., Harberger, S., Schoo, C., & Siddiqui, W. (Updated 2023). Kubler-Ross Stages of Dying and Subsequent Models of Grief. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island, FL: StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved from
  5. American Psychological Association. (2020). Grief: Coping With The Loss of Your Loved One. APA. Retrieved from
  6. Bethune Scroggs, L., Goodwin, L.R., Jr, & McDougal, J.J.W. (2022). Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorders and Grief during Recovery. Substance Use & Misuse, 57(3), 418–424.
  7. Caparrós, B., & Masferrer, L. (2021). Coping Strategies and Complicated Grief in a Substance Use Disorder Sample. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 624065. Retrieved from
  8. Chambers, R.A., & Wallingford, S.C. (2017). On Mourning and Recovery: Integrating Stages of Grief and Change Toward a Neuroscience-Based Model of Attachment Adaptation in Addiction Treatment. Psychodynamic Psychiatry, 45(4), 451–473. Retrieved from
  9. Drabwell, L., Eng, J., Stevenson, F., King, M., Osborn, D., & Pitman, A. (2020). Perceptions of the Use of Alcohol and Drugs after Sudden Bereavement by Unnatural Causes: Analysis of Online Qualitative Data. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(3), 677. Retrieved from

Activity History - Last updated: 26 January 2024, Published date:


Reviewer

Morgan Blair

MA, LPC

Morgan is a mental health counselor who works alongside individuals of all backgrounds struggling with eating disorders. Morgan is freelance mental health and creative writer who regularly contributes to publications including, Psychology Today.

Activity History - Medically Reviewed on 19 January 2024 and last checked on 26 January 2024

Medically reviewed by
Morgan Blair

MA, LPC

Morgan Blair

Reviewer

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