September 20, 2016 Felicia Durling

Stages of Grief and Loss in Early Recovery

Stages of Grief and Loss in Early RecoveryWhen Elizabeth Kubler Ross and Daniel Kessler first released On Grief and Grieving they intended to communicate with people who had recently experienced the loss of a loved one. Infamously, their five stages have created a foundation for therapy worldwide. Kessler explains that the stages are “a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order.”


Stages of Grief and Loss in Early Recovery

Grief and loss are a swirling tornado of revolving emotions, much like early recovery. In early recovery, learning how to identify feelings is like learning how to read, walk, and talk. Early recovery as a process can be compared to the stages of grief and loss. From the end of our using to the beginning of our recovery, we go through the motions of grief- like watching a loved one die. For many of us, drugs and alcohol might have been a companion. In romance, protection, or identity, we formed a bond with the substances we used. Choosing to leave addiction and alcohol behind might feel like losing someone we love. A significant relationship comes to an end in our life and we are left to cope. The five stages of grief can help make sense of this experience.



Denial keeps millions away from the life-saving miracles of recovery every day. Whatever the mechanism- shame, guilt, or fear- we are held back from admitting the truth of our using to ourselves. Denial helps us hold on and try using ‘successfully’ just a little bit longer. If we refuse to believe it is true, that we are in need of help and may have to bid farewell to substances forever, then it isn’t true. Believing it all at once might be too much to bear. Kessler explains that denial is a means of survival. We come to the truth incrementally, taking on as much as we can at a time.



As we gain clarity we see where our lives once were and how using brought us to where we are now. We get angry. We find a target and use it as a channel to express a sudden onset of emotions we haven’t felt in so long. We might be angry at our parents, at God, at ourselves. “How did I get here?” is a sign of waking up to where you are. Anger is rooted in fear. Partially, we are afraid we will never use again. Fearfully, we look upon the road of recovery ahead with doubt in our ability to survive.



Bargaining is often experienced in the detox and withdrawals period of recovery. Cravings can drive us to the point of making deals with God. If God makes the vomiting stop, the trembling stop, even the cravings stop, we promise we will never use again. We promise that if God can get us through this stage we will stay sober. Such promises might be extraordinary. We might promise God we will drink just once a day and use just once a week, if we can just use right now. We try to strike deals with our family members, our caretakers, and our therapists. It seems that good deeds, using, and God’s will, are not accepted currencies.



Depression is a symptom of withdrawal across the board. Of grief and depression Kessler writes that loss is a “very depressing situation, and depression is a normal response. To not experience depression…would be unusual. When a loss fully settles in your soul, the realization that your loved one…is not coming back is understandably depressing.” Our dopamine and reward systems are replenishing to a normal level. At the same time, we are realizing that recovery is our new reality.



Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today” one member of AA famously wrote. Acceptance is not a state of approving, validating, or even being okay with events that have transpired. Rather, acceptance is understanding that we cannot change what has happened in our past. Acceptance is learning to live with it, as Kessler puts it. We accept our recovery as something we are going to learn to do, one day at a time.


Center for Life Change knows your aching heart. Loss feels unending, but you can be healed. Heal here. Let us help.  Call (951) 775-4000 today.

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