Working Through Loss & Grief In Recovery

  • By Jodi MacNeal and Murphy Vestute
  • 08 Nov, 2017

Losses are more than just deaths.

People in active addiction lose far too many friends to drug overdoses. We would never let that painful fact go unacknowledged. But for so many people entering treatment for addiction, grief from a lifelong string of losses fueled the need to drink or use in the first place.

People in recovery face subtle, unrecognized losses every day: 

  • Loss of the drug itself
  • Loss of the rituals around getting and using the drug
  • Loss of the people you drank or used with, and loss of sober friends and family
  • Unresolved losses from the past

Adding grief therapy to the treatment plan addresses what Mark Sanders, LCSW, CADC, calls a “long, unwritten legacy in the field of addiction treatment, which suggests that clients should leave all other problems at the door until they have dealt with their addiction first. As the field matures, we are discovering that many clients cannot recover unless we are able to address a number of their problems simultaneously. Grief is often one of those problems, as acute pain around losses seems to resurface as soon as clients stop using.”

It’s frightening and uncomfortable to confront loss and grief while in treatment without the numbing effect of drugs or alcohol. In many cases, it’s the first time in years – maybe the first time ever – a recovering addict examines a life’s worth of losses and the accompanying emotions. It’s brave and courageous work.

And while you don’t have to do grief work to get better or to stay clean or sober, those who’ve done the work often come back later and report that it helped. In grief recovery work, we’re trying to say goodbye to the pain related to the loss, so the wounds don’t keep reopening. Success means resilience, and the ability to navigate new losses as they occur.

Loss of the drug

In her book, Addiction and Grief, Barb Rogers writes: “My friend is gone – the friend who got me through all the bad times, who was there for me whenever I needed help. Tears run down my face. Great sobs wrack my body… Can I really be grieving a bottle of whiskey?”

You can. Even though you’ve willingly walked away from that bottle, or that needle, or those pills, it’s still a loss. You still feel the pain of that grief, and you still mourn.

The substance has been the constant. It’s been there to provide escape or pleasure. It’s been like a lover, preoccupying your thoughts and filling your days and nights. Its absence leaves a profound sense of loss and grief, including the realization that you no longer have that escape to look forward to.

One young therapist had each person in her small group write a goodbye letter to their drug. “It was so moving,” she said. “It felt like they were letters to people. One person wrote, ‘I needed you. It felt good, and comfortable. You made me feel like everything was OK, but I didn’t realize how much damage you were doing. Now I have fatty liver and I’m dying, and I realize how much you hurt me, inside and out.’ “

Loss of rituals

People in active addiction spend hours every day acquiring and using their drugs. For some, it means planning ahead so they can shoot up before getting out of bed. For others, it means getting through the day at work by looking forward to getting drunk at night. Once in recovery, those rituals have ended and they’re faced with this daunting question: “How am I going to fill my time?”

Part of the loss of rituals involves the loss of freedom, the freedom to do whatever they want with whomever they want, whenever they want. This can feel stifling for a person who’s become unaccustomed to having little or no responsibility. Grief work helps that person see that freedom is available in other healthier ways.

Loss of people

People are powerful triggers. Very often, the only way to escape relapse is to avoid contact with the friends you drank or used with or the boyfriend or girlfriend who got you hooked. As once-addicted people step away from the drug community, it’s natural to mourn the relationships that must end if the person is to remain sober.

Often, we meet people who have experienced family losses – through death or estrangement. Even the pain of romantic breakups can linger, causing the person to get stuck in their grief and turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain.

As they complete their loss inventories, clients often are astounded at the number of personal losses they’ve experienced. One young man’s list was so long, he laid it out on the floor end-to-end and looked up in disbelief. “This explains so much,” he said. “No wonder I’m using.”

Losses from the past

Why revisit old losses – like sexual trauma, abandonment, and abuse – in grief work? Rebecca Williams and Julie Kraft address the question in their book, The Mindfulness Workbook for Addiction: “Loss compounds loss… It’s as if those old wounds are simply covered over with a thin layer of scarring, only to reopen as soon as another loss hits, and then they begin throbbing and bleeding all over again. Lasting recovery requires healing at the source.”

Grief is a normal and natural reaction to loss. It is not a pathological condition. It is not a personality defect. Grief comes to us all. As a culture, we’re given so little education about how to handle loss. Time does not heal – only what you do with that time does. That’s a powerful message for people in recovery to hear.


Murphy Vestute, MS, RMHC, is a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist, a primary therapist at Desert Rose Palm Beach, and owner of A Place to Heal Counseling, LLC ( www.aplacetohealcounseling.com ).

Jodi MacNeal is creative director at Desert Rose, a gender-specific, long-term outpatient treatment center in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Soul-Centered Treatment™ at Desert Rose addresses past hurts and losses.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction please call:
  (844) 338-5587  

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By Jenny Hunt 22 Jan, 2018
So often I talk about the big blessings of sobriety – great job, great life, great friends, great relationship with my family, and that feeling of inner peace and contentment. Sometimes I forget about the little things. Little things that were so out of my reach in addiction, I didn’t even believe they were possible. So here are some of those things, in no particular order:
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Two days after the 1986 NBA draft, No. 2 pick Len Bias was dead of cardiac arrest after of a cocaine overdose.

Len Bias: Best player Maryland had ever seen (maybe the best Maryland player ever, depending on how you feel about Juan Dixon). The future of the Celtics. About to sign an endorsement deal with Reebok. Life was perfect.

Cocaine killed that. He was 22.

Bias hadn’t left home to play college ball; he was a home-grown talent who came up just outside D.C. and played ball in Maryland so he wouldn’t have to leave his family. He had a future as wide-open and promising as any kid, ever. Already a star, a freak of athletic power and poise, he might have changed the world of professional basketball. He’d fueled the dreams of a thousand city kids who wanted to play like him, be him. He swaggered, Len Bias did. His opponents couldn’t fathom him: “He’d jump and his knees would be in my teeth.” He dunked on guys, whether he needed to or not, just because he could. Len Bias could fly.

And then cocaine ended him.

Here’s how it went down: Bias and three buddies were snorting coke in a dorm room, suite 1103 in Washington Hall. Bias did a line, tried to get up, fell back on the bad and lapsed into seizure. One guy held his legs. Another one put the handle of a pair of scissors in Bias’s mouth, to keep him from biting his own tongue. The third somehow called 911 and mumbled, over and over, that his friend was in trouble. Kept saying his friend’s name, even when the emergency operator told him it didn’t matter. “This is Len Bias. You have to get him back to life. There’s no way he can die.”

But drugs don’t differentiate. Substance use, abuse and addiction have attacked athletes across the spectrum of sport.

By Emily Johanson 18 Jan, 2018
If a stranger in a gas station parking lot asks this question, it’s easy to assume what’s going on.

“Nope. I’m fine.”

“You sure?”

“Yep, thanks.”

After working a full day, then sitting through a 4-hour class, the last thing I was in the mood for was to be pestered by a drug dealer at 11 p.m. All I wanted was to get my Marlboro Smooths and go home.

As I got into my car, annoyed by the fact that I had to start it with pliers (broken car keys aren’t worth the $200 replacement), something told me to stop.

I reversed, and rolled down my window next to the mysterious black Toyota.

“What are you selling?”

He told me that he had whatever I needed: Weed, percs, Xanax, heroin, flakka, oxies, you name it.

Addiction was too close to home to keep from speaking up.

“Do you realize what you’re doing? Do you realize what you’re selling?”

He was silent for a minute, staring at me. After what felt like eternity looking into this man’s eyes, I decided that I had the freedom to continue. What else do I say? I began to tell some of my story. I served him my heart on a silver platter.

“You don’t have to do this. There are other ways to make money.”

He looked down in shame. I encouraged him to take a few of my Desert Rose company cards in case he knew someone who needed help. He got out of his car, took the cards from my hand and stood there, shaking his head. With tears in his eyes, he said, “They’re for me.”

I sat there with this guy for 45 minutes while he poured out his heart and story.

Gary told me he’s 49 years old, works on classic cars by day, and sells drugs by night for extra money. He has a beautiful son who he loves with all of his heart. When he removed his hat and pulled his shirt collar aside, his bald head and IV port revealed his personal nightmare: Gary was also fighting stage four colon cancer. He made it clear that his cancer was not an excuse for his behavior, or for his personal drug use.

I was caught off guard when Gary squeezed my hands and began to pray. He prayed against forces of the enemy. He prayed for blessing over my life. He prayed protection and favor over his son. For himself, he prayed for wisdom and strength to do the next right thing.

As he walked back to his car, he turned around and said, “It’s time for me to go home and kiss my son good night. Thank you for reminding me of what’s important.”

Every day, we pass people by, like they’re just part of the scenery. We have absolutely no clue what kind of story, beauty, and pain lie beneath the surface.

If you're in pain, please know we understand and we're ready to help. Call us today at (844) 338-5587. 
By Jodi MacNeal 18 Jan, 2018
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How do you carry your recovery into the world? Do you pin it on daily, like a badge of honor? Do you bring it out just for special occasions, or do you keep it well and truly hidden?

Last month, a longtime acquaintance told me (in slightly hushed tones) that he’s in recovery. 

I was glad that I didn't hear any traces of shame or guilt in his voice. His long-ago drinking and drug use? It’s just the life he was living at the time. He’s not afraid of being judged, or of any stigma attached to substance abuse and recovery.

It’s just that he’s moved on. He’s private about being in recovery and it’s not particularly relevant to the life he's achieved – husband, father, business owner, artist, athlete. He sponsors people, even quietly mentions that he’s a former addict when he thinks it might help somebody. He probably won’t bring it up with his kids unless they ask him point-blank, once they’re old enough to understand. It’s a crazy-healthy way to be.

For some people, declaring their recovery to the world is a part of staying clean. It gives them a sense of identity and a tribe – their own #MeToo community. They’re vocal, active, engaged. These are the folks going into the prisons, leading the meetings, talking to groups of high school students and their parents. Walking though recovery means talking about recovery. They have no secrets.

Then there are others who’ve closed and locked the door. The subject is not open for discussion, and if you happen to touch upon it, everybody’s going to feel a little uncomfortable for a while. This happened to me not long ago, with a pastor friend. Trying to find a way to refuse a glass of prosecco I offered, he made a joke about being an overachiever in everything – including, at one time, drinking. He made his point in a way that made it clear that was all he was planning to say on the matter. His right, and I respect that.

It seems to me that there are a million ways to navigate long-term recovery. What’s your way?
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