When you Google “grief and sobriety,” the bulk of the search results with references on how to maintain your sobriety after dealing with loss and the grief that accompanies it or what the grieving process looks like in the absence of alcohol and other substances.
While these topics are important and having resources for them is helpful, what I haven’t seen much of is the experience many sober people have of feeling grief in response to their sobriety.
What about the grief that erupts in us in response to the loss we feel in opting out of drinking and drinking culture?
This is a topic and emotional experience that many of us have, yet there aren’t a lot of resources on it or articles that can support people in both normalizing and processing this experience.
My hope is that this article does both of those things.
While grief is typically associated with the death of a person, we know that we can experience bouts of grief in a variety of situations and experiences in which loss is present. So, it makes sense that grief would be a part of our sobriety and recovery journey.
At the end of the day, while we are opting out of participating in something that is ultimately causing us a bounty of harm and we know that removing this thing is in our best interest, this experience can and does feel like a loss. We are no longer engaging with something that’s likely been present in our lives for years; we may experience premeditated grief for the loss of future experiences that we anticipated would include alcohol (clinking champagne glasses at your future graduation/wedding/retirement, and so on), or the perceived loss of love, connection, and belonging that we’ve come to associate with drinking (despite the fact that alcohol doesn’t actually facilitate these things).
The perception of that loss is enough to trigger not only grief but also fear—both of which can be challenging to our sobriety.
The relationship we have with alcohol—how we understand it, talk about it, engage with it—is largely shaped by normative alcohol culture, which tells us that regularly consuming alcohol (an addictive drug) is normal (incorrect), that alcohol amplifies the good and minimizes the bad (also untrue), and that alcohol is harmless (the biggest lie of them all).
Given how we culturally place alcohol on a pedestal, it’s no wonder that removing a substance (that is neurotoxic, addictive, and causally connected to at least seven different types of cancer, including breast cancer) registers for us as a loss. Because we have also been conditioned to associate that substance with fun, socializing, and normalcy, which we’ve also been conditioned to want.
It feels counterintuitive, doesn’t it? To grieve something that we know is harming us, making us sick, fuelling our suffering, and usually, shortening our lives.
We know all these things and yet, we still miss it and long for it.
According to experts Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler, authors of the highly acclaimed book On Grief & Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss, there are five distinct stages that we move through in our grieving process, and they are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
I purchased a copy of this book in November 2014, two months after my dad suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. I found this book and the stages to be incredibly helpful in not only understanding but also validating my experiences with grief.
When I think about some of the many feelings and emotional experiences I had while getting sober, the amount of overlap I notice between those experiences and the five stages of grief is stark. This feels like an important observation, especially since we don’t talk much about the grief that can accompany getting sober.
Having a framework of understanding and validation feels tremendously helpful here.
Like other experiences with grief, we move through the stages, often starting with denial. This can look like minimizing the problems alcohol was causing, downplaying the negative impact it had, and even romanticizing the role alcohol played in our lives.
We experience anger toward ourselves for allowing the situation to get out of hand. That anger is also sometimes directed at others, the folks we perceive to be “normal” drinkers*, who have the privilege of being able to drink without consequence (which also isn’t accurate).
We bargain with ourselves; we try to convince ourselves that things weren’t “so bad,” perhaps even negotiating how to bring it back into our lives differently, like moderation, for example.
When the reality of the situation sinks in—that alcohol is no longer in our lives and that this likely is a permanent decision—it’s not uncommon for folks to feel sad or depressed about it because again, it can register for us as a loss. Many of us have such strong associations linking alcohol to fun, socializing, connection, and even our sense of self and identity that the thought of removing it can feel overwhelming.
Grief makes sense here.
Finally and hopefully, we land on acceptance—acceptance of the situation as it is, acceptance and understanding of what alcohol actually is (not looking at it through rose-colored glasses or the lens that Big Alcohol really tries to force on us), and acceptance of our new, alcohol-free lives.
And in the case of sobriety and grief, I hope everyone can land in a place of celebration and peace with the decision and the life they get to live as a result.
In many cases, folks don’t enter sobriety fully willing or ready and aren’t usually terribly eager to be there.
In my own experience, I knew that I needed to get sober because my drinking was wreaking havoc on my life, mental health, and well-being. I knew that this was the best and only decision for me, and I was still incredibly reluctant about it. I felt like my life was over (ironic, given that alcohol was actually making me sick and shortening my lifespan), and I could not imagine a world where alcohol wasn’t present for me.
Of course, I ended up being entirely wrong in every possible way but the point is I entered sobriety reluctantly and miserably, despite knowing it was the best thing for me. The reluctance and misery I was experiencing in my early sobriety definitely contributed to the sense of longing and loss that I felt around no longer drinking.
As a broad topic, grief is terribly nebulous.
Collectively, we don’t deal well with grief, so it’s no surprise then that when we experience grief in the context of sobriety, it can feel confusing and overwhelming and, perhaps, even something we want to escape from.
I can’t help but wonder if one of the factors that prompt folks to revisit (the term I use instead of relapse with my clients and in my work) alcohol is less about the cravings and more about ending the grief that can accompany walking away from something that’s harming you.
Similar to reuniting with an ex after the end of a terrible relationship. We know that it’s not in service to us, and we still do it—often just to end the pain.
Here’s what to remember if you’ve dealt with grief as part of your sobriety journey:
>> It’s perfectly normal to experience grief as part of your recovery process.
>> Your feelings are legitimate; try to experience them fully.
>> Grief is complex and layered, often prompting you to experience multiple, competing, and/or seemingly “opposite” emotions.
>> Name your feelings and the stages of grief that you’re in; be present where you’re at with an understanding that this process isn’t always linear.
>> Going back to drinking won’t help with the grief; it might momentarily pause it, but the grief will continue to be there until you feel and move through it.
>> When addressed and processed, grief will end.
Hang in there, friend. I know sobriety and recovery are hard, and I know that wading through grief is also challenging and emotionally exhausting. In addition to remembering the points above, remember that grief can be acute and intense, but it’s also impermanent. You can feel it all and move through without booze.
Cheering you on, as always.
*It is incredibly important to unpack the idea of normal drinkers versus alcoholic drinkers. This (false) dichotomy places all the blame and responsibility on the shoulders of those consuming alcohol, making it their problem if they develop an issue. This dichotomy does not name alcohol for what it is: a wildly addictive substance. The way this binary is framed also presents alcohol as something we should want to consume, a privilege that glamorizes “normal drinkers” and shames those who struggle. Consuming alcohol is not a privilege for anyone. Yes, there are differences in how folks’ relationships with alcohol develop, but at the end of the day, alcohol is toxic and harmful, regardless of who is consuming it.