The Five Phases of Grief and How Sobriety Helps Me Through Them
Grief and loss are a part of life, whether you’re sober or not. I have lost loved ones and family members during my active addiction and during my sobriety. Most recently, I learned of the passing of an old friend this week as the direct result of active drug addiction. The pain is the same. If I am using, the grieving process is different. That’s because when I am not numbing myself with drugs and alcohol and when I allow myself to deeply feel every emotion that comes up, I truly walk through the phases of grief and ultimately move into acceptance.
When I’m using and drinking, I never arrive at acceptance of pain and loss because I don’t allow myself to truly experience those feelings. I just cover them up with substances, until they inevitably rear their heads again when the drugs run out. Now that I am sober, I am able to move through the phases of grief in healthy ways that allow me to honor the people I have lost. I move forward in my own life with a deeper appreciation for all that I have. This can be tricky, but navigating the grieving process as a sober individual is worthwhile and achievable.
The 5 Phases of Grief
Elizabeth Kϋbler-Ross was a Swiss psychiatrist who worked with patients with terminal illnesses. She developed a model called “the stages of grief” which detailed the common process most people go through during and after a loss. The five phases of grief according to Kϋbler-Ross are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In my personal experience, when I am hit with the loss of a loved one or particularly tragic news, I go through these phases as I navigate the new reality of life without the person I have lost.
Sometimes the grieving process doesn’t occur exactly in this order, and oftentimes I revisit a stage multiple times throughout my period of mourning. Most individuals experience things in a unique way that can’t be tied to any particular formula. However, these stages are often a part of the universal human experience of loss. Charting these emotions as a sober individual is difficult. By nature, I have to feel each and every pang of emotion. However, sobriety has also helped me develop invaluable tools and healthy coping mechanisms. I can now handle my feelings in a non-destructive way.
My first reaction to the reality that I don’t want to accept is to deny it. Sobriety has assisted me in coping with denial and moving past it rather than clinging to the reality I create in my head. The first step of my twelve step fellowship, Alcoholics Anonymous, helps with this. It reads, ‘We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” The principle of honesty is at the foundation of this step.
I could not begin to treat my alcoholism until I stopped denying that it existed and accepted that I had a problem with which I needed help. Losing someone is similar in my experience. In order to move past denial, I must first accept that I am powerless over the events in my life- in this case, the death of a friend- and that my life is full of pain and heartache as a result. Once I have accepted this, I can move past denial and begin to work on the healing that comes with the grieving process.
Anger is a natural part of suffering a loss. For those of a religious bent, this may involve anger at a Higher Power whom we feel has unfairly taken someone we love before their time. I have swelled with what I believed was righteous anger at the loss of friends and family. While this is a normal reaction, it’s unhealthy to remain stuck in this stage. I know that I run the risk of making poor choices in response to any resentments I develop. I could also damage my own emotional well-being. Again, sobriety helps with this stage of the grieving process.
I know from working with my sponsor and sober supports that holding onto anger doesn’t change things, rather it only hurts my own health. The tools I have learned in recovery, like prayer and meditation and reaching out to a friend when I need to vent, all help me to acknowledge my anger as one of the phases of grief and then to ask my Higher Power to help me let it go.
Bargaining is similar to a foxhole prayer: “God, if you get me out of this, I promise I’ll do *blank* for the rest of my life.” It’s an attempt to avoid accepting a reality that we don’t want to believe is true. When any of my friends die of an overdose, I play the bargain game. I think, “if I go to a meeting every day, pray five times per day, and put a dollar in the 7th tradition basket, maybe I can save myself and my friends from addiction.” That’s how it works in my brain, but it’s not how it works in reality.
Barigaining is one of the phases of grief in which I really have to come to terms with the fact that I am not in control of the world around me, only my own actions. This is where the lessons of sobriety are invaluable in the grieving process.
In order to treat my alcoholism, I had to find and build a connection to a Higher Power. I was then able to trust the Higher Power was in control, and had a better plan for my life than I did. Letting go of control and accepting the will of my Higher Power was a huge part of step three. In learning to do this, I have been able to apply it to this stage of grief. While I may be bereaved, I can also trust that I am not in control of the events around me, but something even greater is.
This stage is the hardest part of the grieving process for me. Depression is already a struggle in my life, and the depression that comes from losing someone I cared for compounds it. Again, this is where the gifts of sobriety step in. Having a close network of support, a sponsor, sponsees, and a great therapist has all helped me to move through my depression and sadness. I’ve come to terms with it and I avoid wallowing in it even when I allow myself to feel it.
Without sobriety, I would end up stuck on the part of the grieving process rather than being able to have some shoulders to lean on and help me work through it. New support followed my sobriety and that meant depression wasn’t going to rule my life.
Page 417 of Alcoholics Anonymous reads “And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.” This is easier said than done, but it is only through the acceptance I have learned through my recovery journey that I have been able to arrive as this part of the grieving process.
Trusting that my Higher Power is in control, that there is a plan, and that none of my anger or bargaining or denial will change the reality of the events surrounding me, over which I am powerless, have all been key elements to arriving at acceptance. When I am grieving, I go through the process of pain and profound despair at times, but I know that on the other end of the phases of grief is acceptance and the serenity that comes with it. The ultimate gift of sobriety is a strong sense of inner peace no matter how hard and painful life gets at times of loss.