Grief is a normal, healthy process by which a person works through losses. It involves experiencing the painful feelings associated with the loss, and leads to its resolution.

Most people have experienced losses that result in grief. Death, illness, divorce, and the loss of a job are some obvious losses. But moving to a new town and leaving friends behind, or moving into a new home and giving up an old one with happy memories can also result in grief. The meaning you attach to the loss will determine its impact on you.

Addiction exacerbates losses for individuals, families, and friends, so information about grief issues is important for addicts.

Stages of Grief

Physicians, mental health workers, and religious leaders have studied and written about the process of grief. These writings have a common thread with only minor variations in descriptions of the process. The following model of the stages of grief is typical:

Shock This is nature’s way of protecting you from feeling the devastating impact of a significant loss all at once. “I can’t believe it” is shock. Things don’t seem real. You feel as though you are in a daze. Normal feelings and existence are suspended.

Denial This is a continuation of shock, where at one level you go through the motions but at a deeper level, you have not experienced the impact of the loss. There may be tears, but real despair is yet to come.

Anger Since anger is a natural response to a hurt or loss, it also occurs during grief. There may be no rationale for the target of the anger — it is just discharged. It may be extended or brief, accompanied by tears or not, according to individual differences. Some people express more anger than others. There is no right or wrong way to do it.

Bargaining This is a psychological, usually subconscious attempt to minimize the loss. A feeling of guilt may be involved. “If only I had …” is a common sign of bargaining.

Depression A deep sadness and reality about the loss sets in. The loss is real and forever. This stage is eased by allowing floods of tears, nurturing yourself, and letting others console you. It is painful, but it doesn’t last forever, as acceptance begins to replace it.

Acceptance Acceptance means to integrate the loss and go on with your life. It is learning to live again, and being grateful for the memories you want to keep of what you lost. Acceptance occurs as a gift of not fighting the grieving process.


The feelings in grief do not move in order from one stage to the next, but seem to cycle back and forth. When you don’t try to force or deny them, they flow naturally. Knowing that your feelings are natural is important. Allow yourself to feel and do not ridicule, judge, or rationalize away your feelings.


Since grief involves feelings, many addicts have difficulty with it. The use of mood-altering chemicals and behaviors, as well as prohibitive injunctions from your family about feelings, may have prevented you from healthy grieving. If this is true, your recovery may involve dealing with unresolved grief. We encourage you to be open to that possibility.

Addiction Losses

Joseph Kellerman (Grief: A Basic Reaction to Alcoholism, 1977) identified several significant losses for alcoholics and their family members. Attention to these ideas makes it easy to see the losses any addict could experience as the disease progresses. Some typical losses are:

  • Loss of control over a once pleasant behavior
  • Loss of memory (alcoholic blackouts)
  • Loss of the ability to choose not to indulge in behavior that has negative consequences
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Loss of the respect of others
  • Loss of employment or ability to do a job effectively
  • Loss of health

Losses families may experience are:

  • Loss of order and security in life replaced by chaos and confusion
  • Loss of proper roles for parents and children
  • Loss of trust, honesty, and even love
  • Loss of the sense of family

Children of Addicts

Children who grow up in families where there is active addiction may need to grieve the loss of the opportunity for a happy childhood. Some work done with children of alcoholics suggests that part of the healing process involves grief work.


The damage and injury experienced from addiction can best be healed by participating with others who have similar experiences. That is the basis for Twelve-Step recovery groups: a shared story. As you open your heart and share your pain, others will be there for you, and your grief can be transformed by grace into healing love.

As your wounds are healed, you are then able to be there for others when they need you. You then share the power of a wounded healer, and the process of recovery is passed on.

Grief, see also: Abuse, Acceptance, Affirmations, Anger, Attitudes, Behavior, Control, Family, Fear, Feelings, Grace, Guilt & shame, Higher Power, Incest, Inventory, Love & caring, Magical thinking, Prayer & meditation, Resentments, Responsibility, Self-centeredness, Slogans, Step Three, Step Eleven, Surrender.

Updated 9 Sep 2015

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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