Grief plays a role both in the formation of substance abuse disorders and in their recovery. Many addicts are driven to substance abuse by unresolved grief. In order to achieve a lasting recovery, addicts not only have to resolve the grief surrounding events that may have happened years or decades before, but will also need to grieve for the damage addiction has done to their lives.

Grief counseling is an important part of outpatient and residential addiction treatment, but grieving doesn’t happen on a time table. The grieving process differs from person to person, and some people need longer than others to completely work through their grief. You can work through your grief with the support of loved ones and a professional counselor, especially if you experience signs of complicated grief — a mental disorder that occurs when grief remains debilitating for an abnormally long time.

How Grief Is Crucial to the Recovery Process

No one manages to get through life without experiencing some losses. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a traumatic experience or the failure of a long-held dream, grief is a normal response to loss. But when you fail to face and feel your grief, problems arise.

Many addicts turned to substance abuse in order to cope with the painful emotions of grief that occurred in the wake of a loss or trauma. Drugs and alcohol can seem to offer an escape from painful feelings. If you are one of the many who have numbed the pain of grief with substances, starting your recovery period may bring those original feelings of grief to the surface again. You may also experience feelings of loss for the parts of your life that were damaged by the addiction.

The only way to truly escape from the pain of grief is to sort out the feelings and process the loss. You must come to terms with your grief the old-fashioned way, or you will forever feel tempted to seek solace in drugs and alcohol. You can’t move on from addiction and begin actively building a better life for yourself while you’re still mired down in unresolved grief.

Coping with Grief

The feelings associated with grief — shock, anger, denial, fear, profound sadness and loneliness, guilt and even physical symptoms — can be powerful and they may seem like they will last forever. While there’s no way to rush through the grieving process, you can cope with it while it’s occurring.

Know that you don’t need to “be strong” and hide your feelings of pain and sadness when you’re grieving a loss, even if that loss happened a long time ago. Trying to hide or ignore your pain, even for the sake of those around you, will not help you come to terms with it. Find ways to express your grief, by writing in a journal, making art, playing music or talking to a counselor.

It’s important to find emotional support when coping with grief. Let your loved ones know how you are feeling — they can’t help you cope with your pain if they don’t know you’re in pain. Don’t withdraw from loved ones; let them support you. If you are spiritual or religious, take comfort from those activities. Talk to your 12-Step group about your feelings of grief and talk to your counselor, too. Make sure you take good care of yourself physically. Get plenty of sleep, eat well and exercise regularly. Don’t let anyone tell you how deeply or how long you should grieve, and don’t try to force yourself to grieve a certain way.

When Grief Doesn’t Abate

Although it’s natural to feel a little sad about some losses forever, grief should become less intense with time. Eventually, it will recede and stop occupying a central place in your life. Sometimes people who are grieving develop a condition known as complicated grief, in which the grief continues unabated for longer than normal. If your grief remains so intense that it keeps you from getting back to a healthy lifestyle, you could be suffering from complicated grief.

People with this condition have trouble accepting a loss, even one that happened a long time ago. They may avoid things that remind them of the lost person or thing. They may feel that the loss is insurmountable and feel excessive bitterness or anger over it. If a loved one has died, a person feeling complicated grief may even imagine that the dead person is still alive, look for him or her in familiar places and remain obsessed with him or her.

In order to recover from a substance abuse disorder, you need to come to terms with any unresolved grief you may be feeling. This can make the first weeks and months of recovery very painful, but the only way to resolve grief is to face your feelings. Only when you’ve come to terms with your grief can you move on and build the beautiful life you deserve.