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grief in addiction recovery

Navigating the Five Stages of Grief in Addiction Recovery

In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified the “five stages of grief.” According to her theory, when people grieve, they move between stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But coping with grief isn’t as simple as completing each phase and moving on to the next. And, especially for people in recovery from addiction.

The Five Stages of Grief

According to Kubler-Ross’s theory, the five stages of grief don’t always happen in order and don’t only happen once for each person. For example, someone may experience denial, then depression, and then denial again. Each stage serves a purpose in the process and helps us cope in different ways.


Grief is an overwhelming emotion; it’s common for our mind and body to pretend the loss of a loved one isn’t happening. Denial helps us have more time to absorb what’s happening gradually. Think of this stage as your body’s defense mechanism against an intense situation.


While denial helps to ease you into the situation, the anger stage helps you mask it. Anger enables you to hide emotions you’re not ready to confront. Anger can be redirected to others or yourself. Sometimes people experience anger towards inanimate objects. Not everyone experiences anger. Occasionally people don’t notice they’re stuck in this stage, while others will linger here. 


During grief, most people feel vulnerable and desperate to find an alternative to their pain. The bargaining stage, people start posing “what if” and “if only” statements are trying to make sense of it all. Religious individuals will try to bargain with a higher power or God or make promises in return for healing or relief from their sorrows. 


After this whirlwind of emotions, stage four is depression. Many feel this is when you finally start to process grief, and often people feel relieved to feel sad. By this stage, you’re able to process your emotions more healthily. However, depression can still feel overwhelming, messy, and confusing. It can be easy to get stuck in this stage without the right coping mechanisms. 


The last stage might feel happy to some, but it isn’t always an uplifting feeling. It means you have accepted your loss and understand what it means. Acceptance is a way to recognize a lot has changed, that you have changed, and that is okay.

The 7 Stages of Grief

Other theories believe that the stages of grief are a bit more extensive and can’t be seen as white and white feelings. The model of the seven stages of grief discusses:

  1. Shock and denial
  2. Pain and guilt
  3. Anger and bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. The upward turn
  6. Reconstruction
  7. Acceptance and hope

Coping with Grief in Addiction Recovery

Grief, loss, and trauma are complicated things to deal with for anyone. However, they are a part of life, and individuals must allow themselves to cope with these events in healthy ways. This fact is especially important for people struggling with addictions. 

Generally, addicts and alcoholics become used to dealing with pain by numbing it with drugs and alcohol. In recovery, individuals must learn other ways of coping with grief. 

Grief can cause depression, anger, sadness, isolation, and even physical impacts like headaches and nausea. Coping with grief involves addressing emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical needs.

Learning Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Grief, trauma, and loss can all contribute to addiction and alcoholism. When someone experiences the pain of a significant loss, they may turn to substances to cope. Over time, this can result in dependence. The loneliness and losses of addiction can compound the pain of grief. Fortunately, there are coping mechanisms that can help us process grief in a healthier way:

  • Talking to a therapist who also understands addiction and how grief may trigger cravings.
  • Reaching out for support from friends, sober supports, and your sponsor.
  • Using coping skills like journaling, making art, listening to music, and spending time outside.
  • Being mindful of physical needs, such as getting enough sleep and nutrition.
  • Being patient with yourself and allowing yourself the opportunity to experience the feelings without trying to numb them.

Above all, it’s essential to allow yourself time to process grief. Grieving is not a linear or instant process, and it’s okay to take as much time as one needs to experience it. It also doesn’t have to be a lonely experience. Making sure that you are reaching out for support can be a reminder that you aren’t alone and that others are there to lend a hand when you need it.

Seeking Help

If you or someone you know is struggling with grief in addiction recovery, reach out for help. Remember, grief can occur after a relapse episode, losing someone you love, loss of a job, or other situations. Catering for your mental health is vital for long-term sobriety and recovery. 

Make sure you’re speaking with a mental health professional about your struggles with grief and maintaining sobriety. Consider joining an aftercare recovery program that incorporates relapse prevention, individual therapy, and group support meetings to help you process the stages of grief. 

Our treatment programs at Lighthouse Recovery Institute incorporate aftercare classes that focus on ongoing support and relapse prevention techniques.

Our compassionate staff helps you navigate everything life throws at you more than a drug abuse treatment center. We know that recovery is a lifelong process, and we’ll be here to support you and provide you with the tools you need to achieve long term sobriety and recovery.

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