Chemically dependent individuals, like everyone else, experience loss. Working with grief in chemically dependent clients is challenging, due to the fact that they use drugs, in part, to avoid pain. They may also experience delayed grief soon after becoming drug-free. Delayed grief means that the person experiences the intense pain of loss they suppressed due to their use of drugs.
I have become more attentive to grief in chemically dependent individuals since the death of my daughter Jeannine over seven years ago. I have discovered many similarities in the journeys between chemically dependent individuals who are working to attain sobriety and non- chemically dependent bereaved individuals who are trying to adjust to life without their loved ones:
- Use of support groups: Chemically dependent individuals rely on support from self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous to help them live a drug-free lifestyle. Regular attendance at these self-help meetings helps them feel less alone and isolated during their recovery journey. Individuals who have experienced loss will go to a support group best suited to meet their needs. For both grieving and chemically dependent individuals, inadequate support networks can be detrimental to their progress. For chemically dependent individuals who have specific grief issues, attendance at a support group specific to their loss, is also indicated.
- Stories are key: The significance of the journeys of both chemically dependent and bereaved individuals is enhanced by the stories that they tell about their addiction and their deceased loved ones.
- Emphasis on Self–Care: Bereaved individuals are encouraged to develop their own personal self-care plans, which can include ways that they can nurture themselves physically, psychologically, spiritually and emotionally after loss. Chemically dependent people are also encouraged to develop self-care plans. They are taught to identify their triggers and to find ways to manage those triggers. Self-care plans should be modified as the individual’s needs change.
- The journeys of both the chemically dependent person and bereaved individual are circular rather than linear. A chemically dependent individual may re-experience urges to use at any time in their recovery due to contact with old places, people and things that contributed to their use, or due to stress. For the bereaved, the continuous occurrence of milestone events (e.g., birthdays, death anniversary dates) can result to a return to the intense emotional pain of early grief.
When working with bereaved and chemically dependent people, professionals can be most helpful in helping them find meaning and significance through listening to their stories, celebrating progress and connecting them with appropriate support networks. In this context, the professional becomes a companion and an important part of the journey.
We also need to remember that not everyone grieves or attains sobriety the same way. It is our job to understand their individual needs and strengths, and work from that perspective.
Dave Roberts 2011