Grief Therapy for Addiction Recovery

November 23, 2022

Grief is a common and normal – yet often overwhelming – response to loss. Everyone will process and respond to experiences of loss differently. Commonly, many people turn to addiction in an attempt to self-medicate challenging emotions that result from grief. Unfortunately, substance use will only worsen symptoms of grief and lead to the development of a substance use disorder (SUD).

Nearly 10% of Americans will develop a SUD at some point in their lives. As addiction is a complex disease, treatment often utilizes various therapeutic approaches to help individuals not only achieve sobriety but also address any underlying issues that may be perpetuating their substance use. As grief tends to instigate substance use, one valuable treatment approach for addiction recovery is grief therapy. 

Grief Therapy

The process of abstaining from a substance or behavior requires acknowledging loss. Grief therapy is a type of counseling that helps to guide a client through their grieving process. This process is imperative because a client must learn how to work through and process grief in order to prevent future relapse.

Even when an individual has no conscious experience of grief or loss to work through, grief therapy can still be valuable for recovery. This is because as they remove their reliance on a chemical substance, they will likely begin to grieve it. Additionally, they will learn how to honor their own grieving process instead of resenting it.

The grieving process fosters several important skills necessary to sustain lasting recovery. Making space to grieve allows clients to reflect on past losses that they may have otherwise buried in their subconscious minds. Simultaneously, it teaches clients how to mourn change, more specifically, the change that is needed to maintain lifelong recovery.

The Five Stages of Grief

In 1969, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler Ross coined the five stages of grief. Originally, this theory posed that the grieving process was comprised of 5 distinct and linear stages. However, research now acknowledges that these stages are not inevitably experienced in linear order. As a whole, these stages allow a client to understand that the grieving process is both complicated and inevitable.

These five stages of grief include:

#1. Denial

Within the process of change, denial is considered pre-contemplation. It is the phase that occurs before an individual recognizes they need to change or that a change has occurred. This could look like the beginning of grief therapy when the full scope of an issue is not yet discovered. In treatment, denial can surface as hesitation to recognize the consequences that have occurred in one’s life as a result of their addiction.

#2. Anger

In the anger stage, an individual is aware of difficult feelings but remains resistant to change. Within the context of change, this is when a person notices the effects of our behavior but is not yet contemplating change. The skill of admitting and working through this phase allows a client to process loss by beginning to see feelings or behaviors that have previously not been acknowledged.

#3. Bargaining

This phase encourages an individual to process their emotions as they try to make sense of them. When a person loses someone or something important in their life, bargaining can look like evaluating all of the ways how the loss happened and could have been avoided. During treatment and recovery, this can look like strategizing and struggling to accept a loss of control over the situation.

#4. Depression

At this stage, an individual reaches an important level of acknowledgment. Depression during the grief process looks like mourning for the person or thing lost. During addiction treatment, this is often where the first steps of change occur. An individual will learn to accept the situation and feel the true extent of their loss.

#5. Acceptance

When we have lost someone or something, we have to learn to live without them. In this phase of grief, we have adapted to the loss of a loved one or substance. Acceptance is the phase where an individual finds a new balance. It does require maintenance. In the context of addiction recovery, this may look like different obstacles that may surface and require more effort to maintain one’s sobriety. 

Grief and Addiction Recovery

Not surprisingly, the five stages of grief processed in grief therapy and the stages of change in recovery are quite similar. These two processes developed from a foundation of neurological change and brain remodeling. When treatment facilities offer a safe space for clients to heal from grief and loss, treatment will be more effective overall. Since grief therapy requires clients to work towards accepting change alongside traditional treatment, it can be extremely beneficial for recovery from addiction.

Addiction is a disease that can be greatly affected by grief. When we lose a loved one, it can be easy for us to turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. However, this can inevitably lead to substance abuse, which does not allow us to process the full scope of the loss. Grief therapy is a counseling approach that is often used in addiction treatment to help clients process challenging experiences of loss in a healthy and effective way. Grief therapy helps to aid in the process of recovery by teaching the necessary skills required to facilitate long-lasting change.

Here at Buena Vista, we believe that everyone deserves a life free from addiction. We utilize grief therapy as one of our many effective therapeutic approaches to help clients achieve and sustain recovery from addiction. Call (480) 741-9414 to learn more.