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How Does Grief and Loss Factor into Addictions Therapy?

Letting go of an addiction can put you on the road to a new healthier life, but even with all the great benefits of clean living comes feelings of sadness and loss for the life you had before.

Sober living can feel like a complicated grief process that is leading you to an entirely new life where you have to make so many sudden changes. Oftentimes, those sudden changes can feel like a major loss.

Let’s look at the 5 Stages of Grief, and how they factor into addiction and recovery.


This stage of grief is very clearly and easily linked to drug addiction: “I don’t have a problem”, “I am not an addict”, “I don’t need help”, “I can quit anytime I want” …all of these are things you or the addict in your life has thought or maybe even said as a rationalization for why they don’t need to stop their drug use.

Denial is more than just refusing to acknowledge you need help, though. Denial can be understanding and acknowledging that you need to stop your use but refusing to believe you need to take drastic steps to do it.

For example, many people believe they can continue to hang out with their friends or family who are drug users. Sometimes people often think they can even use their drug of choice occasionally and just cut back, seemingly solving their addiction problem.


As the denial about your addiction fades, you start to become agitated and annoyed. Anger sets in, and you may even lash out at the family and friends who are trying to help you. This anger often comes from a place of hurt and fear, because you are one step closer to accepting that your addiction is out of control and that you need help.



If you are the loved one of an addict, there is a very good chance you have heard something like this before: “this is the last time, I promise”, “I will stop”, “Give me one more chance…”, “I just need one more and then I will be better”. These are all forms of bargaining, and they can translate out of the addiction itself – for example, a husband struggling with alcohol addiction telling his wife that “if you stay with me, I’ll stop using”.

Sometimes addicts even bargain with themselves, saying things like “I will only drink on the weekends”.

Addiction has a way of distorting the person’s reality, making it seem like their addiction isn’t as dangerous or life-consuming as it actually is. Because of this, many people try to bargain with friends and family over not entering a treatment facility or detox center.


There can be an overwhelming sadness and loneliness that comes with addiction, and it’s amplified tenfold when the person begins to realize the damage and pain they have caused because of their addiction.

You can no longer pretend that your addiction isn’t as bad as it is, you can no longer say that you don’t need help. Depression is extremely common in addicts who are in treatment because, with the help of cognitive behavioural therapy, family counselling and group sessions, the way their addiction has destroyed their lives and the lives of those they love become clearer and clearer.


This final stage of the grieving process can last a lifetime and you may still feel bouts of anger, depression, denial or regret – but you are slowly coming to terms with your new reality. You have a problem, a disease – and the road to recovery is long and difficult, but you know you need to take the first steps and keep moving forward.

The more you learn about your behaviour and your addiction, the more you begin to accept that drugs and alcohol can no longer be a part of your life. You know you need to learn how to move forward in your life, leaving your addiction behind.

This stage is very commonly associated with the death of a loved one because many of the feelings are the same: you have to move forward without something that meant a lot to you, that you have had in your life for a long time, and that you maybe have forgotten how to live without.


The Different Losses that Come with Recovery

Dealing with loss can be painful, and emotional and for those who struggle with addiction, it can be very triggering. Understanding what kinds of losses you will be faced with on your road to recovery can ultimately help you cope with the complicated grief and loss that can wash over you throughout your journey.

Saying Goodbye to Old Friends

Living a sober life means making a lot of big changes that enable positive, healthy behaviour. It’s very likely that when you were an active addict, you surrounded yourself with people who enabled or had no problem with your drug use.

Becoming sober involves purging potential triggers out of your life to lessen your chances of relapsing. This can ultimately mean saying goodbye to friends (maybe friends you have had for years) because they enable your bad habits or are still active addicts themselves.

The Loss of the Actual Substance

It really feels like a loss, when you give up your drug of choice. Many former addicts have compared giving up their drug of choice to a bad breakup or even a death of a loved one because you are going through mourning and loss of not only the lifestyle you had that enabled you to use but also the drug itself.

Many people who are addicts have turned to their drug of choice because of loneliness or emotional pain or trauma, and because of this, they have found quite literal comfort in their drug use.

At first, the drug use is thrilling and exciting, you get butterflies, you anticipate the time spent together. When your use becomes more frequent, it takes over your life and is the focal point – everything you do is to reach your next high. The attachment to your drug of choice becomes stronger and more intense. Dependence sets in, and you feel that the drug is a critical part of your life you could never imagine living without.

Recovery.Org recalls a patient once explaining her addiction to them: “My husband actually thought I was having an affair because of the time spent away from the family. He knew I was lying about something but he couldn’t figure out what was happening. I wasn’t having an affair with any other person, but Oxy had become my best friend. I was in love with it, and never wanted to be apart from it.”

Saying goodbye to a coping mechanism that you have maybe relied on for months or even years can be a complicated kind of grief. Oftentimes, this can make you feel that you are completely lost, unsure of how to cope in any other way aside from getting high.

drug of choice

Losing Relationships

Even when you have made the choice to be sober, sometimes it can feel like too little, too late for your loved ones. While you can always hope to regain and rebuild those friendships and relationships – sometimes the people who have been there throughout your years of addiction are not able to be there for you throughout much of your recovery.

Losing friendships and relationships for the sake of a healthier lifestyle (as mentioned above) can be difficult but ultimately you understand you’re making the best decision. When it comes to losing relationships with loved ones right around the time you are trying to get sober, this can be very painful.

You may feel as though you are finally doing something right and they can’t be there to support that – but part of dealing with your recovery is understanding just how much your actions have affected other people’s lives and giving them the space to process and deal with their own emotions about your addiction.

Your Daily Routine/Current Lifestyle

Addiction is time-consuming, and much of your daily life when you’re an addict revolves around your drug of choice. People you see, the places you go to find your drug, the time you spend under the influence of the drug…all of that disappears when you become sober.

When you have been in a set routine for so long (even if it’s an unhealthy one), when that routine ends, you can feel lost, hopeless, helpless and directionless.

The “Old” You

Perhaps one of the most significant losses (and the one that feels the most like an actual death) is grieving the loss of who you were as an addict. Addiction changes people, not only physically but mentally and emotionally, as well.

Losing the addict in you is saying goodbye to a very real part of who you have been for a long time, and this can be quite unsettling for many people. Feelings of despair, helplessness and a feeling of lost identity are very common when dealing with addicts in recovery because so much of who they have become was entangled in an addiction.

Take the addiction away and what’s left? For many people, that uncertainty of who they are without their drug of choice is often what keeps them from entering treatment for their addiction.

feelings of despair

Why Ending Your Relationship with Drugs Should Be Treated as A Death?

Relationships can be mended, they can heal, and they can go on to have importance in your life – your addiction cannot. Addiction may feel like a toxic relationship you’re getting out of or a friend who is not in your life anymore, but for successful recovery, it needs to be more than that. It needs to be erased from your life in a more permanent way…kind of like death.

People who struggle with addiction must be completely removed from their drug(s) of choice in order to live healthier, happier, substance-free lives. Despite how much a part of them loves their addiction, it will never be able to be a healthy thing in your life, even in moderation.

Death, in this situation, refers to ending a very deep, very emotional connection with a substance that has been in your life. Maybe your substance of choice has helped you through hard times, made you feel special, made you feel connected to other people, made you feel less lonely…and that is coming to an end. It’s important to grieve this loss for what it is because it really is like a part of your life has died.

Why Grief and Loss Addiction Therapy is Important

When a widow is mourning the death of her spouse – she may seek out grief counselling or attend grief support groups. An addict can do much the same thing in their recovery because saying goodbye to your addiction really is a major loss.

On top of that, unresolved grief or traumatic events are typically what cause addicts to relapse and making grief and loss therapy part of the recovery process can help make the user more aware of the potential of this happening to them.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ Cycle of Grief and Loss (commonly known as the 5 Stages of Grief, which we outlined above in relation to addiction), is a non-traditional but highly effective tool that some mental health professions, addictions treatment programs or grief therapists use.

Having a safe place to talk about the pain, loss, and grief of leaving your addiction behind while you move forward on your road to recovery can allow you to fully process and come to terms with the new kind of lifestyle you will have. Mourning the loss of your drug, your old life and the person you turned into because of your drug use can be a cathartic, surreal and ultimately life-changing experience.

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