Surviving Grief While Staying Sober

Surviving Grief While Staying Sober

Everyone will experience loss, and most people will face multiple losses in their lifetime. When we think about grief, we often think about the death of loved ones, including beloved pets. Any major loss causes grief, and it is an intensely painful experience. The pain feels overwhelming and all-consuming. It is tempting for people in recovery to turn to drugs or alcohol to numb or ease the hurt. It is important to remember that these substances will only mask and delay the pain. Relapse is not inevitable for people who face loss and grief while in recovery. It is possible to overcome the hurt and pain of grief while staying sober.

What Is Grief?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, grief is a normal response to a loss during or after a disaster or other traumatic event. People grieve when a loved one is lost, but it is also a response to upheaval in routines or ways of life that bring comfort and stability. Some examples include:

  • Job loss
  • Divorce
  • The ending of a friendship
  • Injury or medical issues causing a loss of health and wellness
  • Reduction in or loss of support system

One can experience multiple losses during a large-scale disaster or emergency. The COVID-19 pandemic is an example of a large-scale event causing many people to experience the loss of a loved one, changes in routines and ways of life that bring comfort and stability. Some common reactions to grief are:

  • Shock, disbelief, or denial
  • Sadness
  • Loss of sleep and loss of appetite
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Distress

Can Grief Lead to Increased Substance Use or Relapse for People in Recovery?

A study done in 2018 showed an association between stressful life events and a decrease in a person’s chances of becoming abstinent or maintaining recovery for at least three years. Researchers found that the respondents who had reported stressful experiences had about 20 percent higher odds of being among those who had used drugs during that year. Many of the stressful events assessed were events that could cause grief reactions.

Another study indicated that it was difficult for young people grieving losses caused by unnatural causes of death to struggle with controlling their use of substances to cope with their emotions.

Healthier Ways to Manage the Pain of Grief

While turning to substances to cope with the overwhelming feelings that grief brings in its wake can seem like an easy way out, they can cause additional problems, including:

  • Hangover/crash
  • Legal problems
  • Family conflict
  • Health problems
  • Job loss

There are many healthier ways to manage the pain, including:

  • Acknowledge the grief and pain without judgment and feel it.
  • Understand that there is no wrong way to grieve and grief has no time limit.
  • Avoid comparing your grief to that of someone else.
  • Do not isolate. Talk to friends and family who are supportive and understanding.
  • For people in recovery who have a sponsor, call them and talk to them.
  • For people who attend 12-step meetings, attend an additional meeting.
  • Join support groups. There are general groups and groups for specific circumstances such as chronic pain, cancer, those who have lost infants/children, those who have lost loved ones to suicide, pet loss, etc. In addition, there are in-person and online groups available.
  • Eat healthy foods and exercise. Both can help improve mood and can help with managing cravings for substances.
  • If cravings or the urge to use substances to numb the pain arise, do not immediately reach for those substances. Pause. Give the craving or urge time to pass.
  • Schedule an appointment with a therapist who can help process the grief and the desire to use substances to self-medicate. Many therapists provide a choice of traditional in-office or virtual visits.
  • Writing in a journal, drawing, or using other creative outlets is a great way to express painful feelings without fear of judgment, and it can distract from urges to use substances.
  • For people dealing with grief due to job loss, it can help them to take steps to find new employment. Steps include searching online job boards, checking with friends and family for leads, and utilizing any networking connections made while working the previous job.

While it is not easy, it is possible to avoid relapse while grieving. However, if relapse does happen, it is important to seek help immediately. Grief is a difficult, painful and ongoing process. But remember, substance use and the problems it can cause will never make grieving easier. Choosing recovery is one of the most important things a person can do to maintain optimal physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health and make sure the grieving process is as healthy as possible.

Grief is both universal and highly individual. The pain experienced while grieving can feel all-consuming, overwhelming, and unbearable. It is not surprising that people feel tempted to turn drugs and alcohol or for those in recovery to return to substance use to dull that pain. If you have started using substances or have relapsed to cope with grief, help is available at Casa Palmera. We offer a variety of levels of care to meet your unique treatment needs. Our highly trained, experienced staff will be there to help guide and support you as you process your grief. They will also work with you to help you develop effective coping strategies to manage your cravings and triggers. At Casa Palmera, we use evidence-based treatment while incorporating ancient eastern intuitive therapies to provide a multi-dimensional, holistic treatment experience. To learn more about our treatment program, call Casa Palmera today at (855) 508-0473.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.