Being Newly Sober Can Make Dealing With Grief Extra-Challenging—Here’s Why, and Tips for How To Deal

Photo: Getty Images/Frazer Harrison / Staff ; Graphic: W+G Creative

Dealing with the grief of losing a loved one is emotionally taxing and can lead you to search for coping mechanisms in order to get through especially tough days. But when you're newly sober and still adjusting to your recovery plan and the different habits it includes (and, crucially, does not include), that search may be especially tricky to navigate. “Loss can directly interfere with [a newly sober person's] ability to make these lifestyle changes, sending them back to the addictive coping mechanism that worked for them in the past,” says grief counselor Diane P. Brennan, LMHC. Rethinking the grief process, though, while leaning on the supportive elements of a recovery plan can actually help with the task of grieving while sober (and keep you from derailing your progress).

Chrissy Teigen is in the early stages of her journey with sobriety and recently shared her experience of soberly grieving the loss of her third child during pregnancy last year. “I don’t really feel like I fully processed Jack, and now that I don’t have the alcohol to numb it away, things are just…there, waiting to be acknowledged,” she wrote in a recent Instagram post.

Experts In This Article

However, what grieving experts say is essential to remember is that, first, there isn’t a seamless way to “fully process” or get over grief. “It doesn’t function like recovering from a cold or flu, but instead, we learn to live with it,” says bereavement-care specialist Virginia A. Simpson, PhD. And second, because feelings of loss do beg to be confronted, finding non-self-numbing ways to cope can help with both managing the tough emotions and learning from them. For Teigen, that strategy might be getting her favorite lasagna dish (as she shared in her Instagram post), and for you, it might be something else entirely.

“Loss can directly interfere with [a newly sober person's] ability to make these lifestyle changes, sending them back to the addictive coping mechanism that worked for them in the past.” —grief counselor Diane P. Brennan, LMHC

And in working through any bout of grief—for folks who are newly sober, long sober, or otherwise—it's also key to understand that the process is not linear. That is, it's not one-size-fits-all for every person or type of loss, and it doesn't present in neatly organized stages to progress through. “The pain comes in waves, washes over us, then stops for a while,” says Dr. Simpson.

But while this is true for all people who grieve, when you're also navigating sobriety, remembering that undulating feeling—being fine one moment, devastated the next—as something to be expected is key to keeping yourself from reverting to self-numbing whenever it arises. Below, the experts share a few practices to consider when developing your own process for how to grieve while sober.

5 tips for how to grieve loss while newly sober, according to grief specialists:

1. Embrace your sobriety or recovery plan with renewed vigor.

Gripping onto an existing routine—as much as you can, given the logistical upset triggered by loss—is one method experts recommend for managing your mental health while grieving. And, in fact, the rigidity of a sobriety or recovery plan itself may entail helpful pillars to hold onto as forces outside your control change rapidly.

In practice, that means sticking to your usual eating, exercising, and sleeping schedules as closely as possible, says Brennan, and also continuing to do things that bring you joy. That includes seeing the people whose presence you enjoyed before the loss, too: “Spending time with good friends can help support the idea that, at the end of the day, you’re still you,” says Dr. Simpson.

2. Dedicate time to new happiness-inducing activities.

If you feel as though your existing set of joy-sparking activities could use a refresh, adopt new ones that can both support your health and act as coping mechanisms. On the list of suggestions from Brennan and Dr. Simpson: Exercising, meditation, journaling, and drawing—all of which can serve as temporary distractors, release mood-enhancing neurotransmitters, and even engender a new hobby.

3. Drop the need to “accept” the loss.

Dr. Simpson warns against pushing yourself toward acceptance “because to accept means to embrace, and no one wants to embrace loss,” she says. Instead, it’s helpful to simply acknowledge the reality of the situation by establishing a new relationship with the lost person. “That could mean redefining your role in life so it’s no longer tied to that person,” she adds. For example, consider who you are and how you might define yourself among your friends, at work, or in other contexts, rather than as solely a mother, father, child, sibling, or the like, to the lost person.

4. Lean on a support system.

Rather than self-isolating, tap the loved ones in your life for additional support, both with processing the loss and staying on top of your sobriety plan. Bringing those people into your space more often allows for more accountability, as does joining a designated support group with people who’ve experienced a similar type of loss as you have, says Brennan.

5. Practice gratitude when you feel moments of positivity.

Sure, you won’t be able to just find life’s bright spots any time of the day. But whenever the tidal wave of grief subsides just enough for some degree of calm, take advantage of the moment to remind yourself of the things you’re still grateful for, says Dr. Simpson. “Gratitude is like building a muscle, and the more we teach ourselves to seek it out amidst our pain, the stronger our gratitude practice will get and the more things we will find to be grateful for.”

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