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Mourning & Substance Use Disorder Recovery

Grief and loss and mourning are all subjects that can be addressed in substance use disorder recovery. Mourning in a healthy and whole-hearted way can make a massive difference in a person’s recovery process, not just from their drug or alcohol recovery but for their life. Dealing with grief and loss is never easy, which is why reaching out for help is important.

In addition to any loss you have experienced in your life, in substance use disorder recovery, you will also be mourning the loss of your main coping mechanism, hence why the subject of grief and loss has never applied to recovery more.

I met Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in the late 1960s and was immensely impressed regarding her compassion towards the death and dying.

Here understanding of the mourning process was monumental as she presented the five stages that dying patients experience:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

I’m glad she ran away from her Swiss home at the age of 16 and volunteered in a World War II hospital because her father forbade her from becoming a doctor.
After being born the most premature and fragile of triplet siblings, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross started medical school in 1951 and became the leading expert on death and dying.

She wrote more than 20 books including:

  • On Death and Dying
  • On Grief & Grieving
  • On Life After Death
  • To Live Until We Say Goodbye
  • Life lessons
  • Death The Final Stage of Growth
  • The Wheel of Life
  • Living with Death and Dying
  • The Tunnel and the Light

As recovery experts, we watch Dr. Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of mourning play-out in every single guest that successfully completes our recovery programs.

How is that possible?

To understand why, we must remind users and inform non-users, that the relationship between each person and their substance(s) is usually more compelling and intimate than with any other person place or thing on the planet. There is usually no greater “significant other” to a substance user than their substance(s) of choice.

Consequently, the thought of entering a treatment program rapidly converts into the horrible thought of assassinating their very favorite significant other.
And so each budding substance use assassin starts dipping their warm toes down the very cold 5 pool stairs that Dr. Kubler-Ross eloquently described.

Denial is a river in Egypt and it’s also the first thing that happens when a person is thinking about entering an abstinence-based recovery program; “Ah I don’t have that much of a problem with drugs” is what they tell themselves.

Recovery involves recovering substance users growing through Dr. Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of their active substance use existence’s death.

Simultaneously, recovery involves cycling through Prochaska’s stages of change including:

  1. Pre-contemplation
  2. Contemplation
  3. Preparation
  4. Action
  5. Maintenance

Chambers and associates state the following regarding substance use treatment: “Attention to the process of addiction recovery-as a form of grieving-in which Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief and Prochaska’s stages of change are ultimately describing complementary viewpoints on a general process of neural network and attachment remodeling,” which often makes the road to recovery much less bumpy.

Reach Out

If you or a loved one wants to learn more about our substance use programs, please reach out to us today. Our admissions team is available 24/7 at (877)-RECOVERY to answer your questions.


Chambers RA, Wallingford SC. On Mourning and Recovery: Integrating Stages of Grief and Change Toward a Neuroscience-Based Model of Attachment Adaptation in Addiction Treatment. Psychodynamic Psychiatry. 2017 Winter;45(4):451-473.

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