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Grief Is A Vital Part of Recovery, So Embrace It

One of the things I think our society has an extremely difficult time with is the process of grief. We give it a lot of lip service, but, in the end, avoid talking about how much grief and loss is involved in day-to-day life. We politically correctify it as “empty nest syndrome” or a “midlife crisis” in order to avoid actually feeling the losses. We call these the “normal losses” in life and pretend they don’t exist. Loss is a very real thing and one that must actively be addressed.

When I talk about grief, I’m talking about the active process of facing the loss, having our soul touched by it, and moving on into what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross called “acceptance” and is sometimes also referred to as “saddened acceptance.” We cannot change the losses. They are gone. We have to face them and see how they have impacted us.

I finally got a true understanding of grief when I was escorted onto the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge outside Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, by my friend Reverend Ted Wiard, who is the founder of Golden Willow Retreat, a place for healing grief. Let me preface this whole image by saying that I am deathly afraid of heights. Ted took me walking onto a bridge over a 590 foot gorge at six o’clock in the morning, which was not what I would have planned. Fortunately, I was given no option, all in good spirit. Standing on this magnificent bridge, I could see how a tectonic plate shift (literally a split in the flat surface of the earth) had basically created a HUGE rift in the earth, over which I was suspended. It is, as I said, nearly a quarter of a mile across and almost 600 feet down to where I could barely see the water. As I stood on the lookout in the middle of this bridge (albeit clutching the railing for dear life), I could hear the wind and feel the enormity of what was before me. I could experience with all my senses precisely what grief was: something enormous was just not where it should be. I have no concept of what power and force it would take to move the earth apart and create a gorge of this magnificent size and beauty. Yet, there I stood, mesmerized in the middle of it. I had been taken to a place that actually showed me what grief does in our lives. Grief suspends us over a huge gorge in what was supposed to be the solid ground of life.

From less than half a mile away, you cannot see the Rio Grande Gorge coming, much like the losses we discover in our lives. While Ted had shown me a video of the bridge and the gorge, as we drove toward it, I had no idea what I was about to embrace. No matter how we prepare for losses or think we have “handled them,” when we truly stand in the gap of a deep loss, we cannot fully be prepared for it. Our culture would have us simply turn away and keep marching as though nothing happened.

In reality, when we know we have lost, we need to stand on that observation deck, clutch the safety rail, and allow ourselves to be awestruck. At some point in life, every recovering person must face some degree of grief about the losses that come with recovery. Perhaps they are relatively insignificant. I certainly hope they are. Yet, if they go unnoticed, they tend to grow and become stumbling blocks. I must emphasize that the goal is not any specific process, but acceptance that something has gone and cannot be recaptured. Here is a partial list of things to think about having lost:

  • An adolescence filled with innocence and free exploration, replete with clumsiness, embarrassment, and humor, not lost in an addictive stupor or shame.
  • NOT having a divorce.
  • Having a “functional family” (whatever THAT is!).
  • The hope of growing old with a true sense of future beyond the next frolicking bend.
  • Having insurance benefits that don’t exclude addiction or mental health coverage.
  • Being able to tell people without fear where you go when you go to meetings.
  • NOT being the only one at your 20 year high school reunion who is drinking ginger ale (or at least admitting it!).
  • Being able to go to your 20 year high school reunion or, if you go, being able to tell the truth and not that story you rehearsed all the way there.
  • Being able to attend a party and NOT feel like you are walking through a minefield of triggers
  • Realizing all you miss because of the choice to remain away from triggers.

In addition, other losses have to do with the wounds that come from the processes I’ve been talking about. Think about some of these:

  • The irreparable change in your relationship with your parents, friends, and others when you first told them about the addiction; even if the relationship healed.
  • The reality that our family of origin or biology, the people who were our primary caregivers, may not be a part of our lives.
  • Another birthday or holiday without a card from siblings or cousins that you saw every day through years of grade and high school.
  • The promotions you doubt you’ll ever get because they “know.”
  • The friends you lost because, once you shared your story, you just didn’t ever call them.
  • The time wasted in a life you didn’t want, longing for the one you didn’t have.

While a morbid preoccupation with these losses is totally useless, my belief is that when these issues are not grieved, they become the framework for internalized shame-that deep pain a person carries towards self, most often projected out on others first. This breeds a smoldering anger that feeds isolation and fear. I think the main source of this anger is the unresolved grief about these subtle losses and the wounds that go with them. The important goal is to mobilize the anger and use it constructively to motivate change, rather than destructively directing it toward themselves. Many equate the negative self-image that internalized shame represents and the resulting anger it generates to a cultural victimization. For many, being an addict or codependent was felt to be a personal defect and shifting the process to a healing mode was essential.

The good news is that, once we face the grief and understand the impact of the loss, we can move on and find our way. We can never fill that gorge in our lives. Eventually, if we are lucky, we can begin to see how it adds to the geography and landscape of our hearts and our lives and gives us a unique beauty that can only come from the healing of grace. We learn to pause when we are faced with reminders and to revere the memory of the loss and how it moved us forward in life. In reality, the important thing is not the loss, but the growth that comes out of it.

May your recovery be filled with grace, growth, and healing.

– By James C. “Jes” Montgomery, MD

James C. “Jes” Montgomery, MD, is medical director at Santé Center for Healing and this article is reprinted with permission.

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