In my practice, I bear witness to a lot of different types of grief. Though it may be hard for some people to understand, there is a grieving period that is necessary to start the recovery process. For those dealing with substance abuse, alcohol and drugs have been a constant companion, even a best friend; always available, always reliable, and never judgmental. If you have never struggled with addiction, imagine someone walking up to you and telling you that you can no longer associate with someone you love, no matter how great the desire. Now imagine being full of shame for feeling this loss. That is something like addiction.
There are other aspects of grief that I see in my office on a regular basis. Due to the severity of the opiate crisis, many of my clients have lost friends and family to the disease of addiction. Last year, I counted eight deaths in one month related to overdose or suicide. Some were people I had known, some were friends or family of my clients. Each death represents a catastrophic loss for someone, a hole in the fabric of their universe that can never be filled.
Recently I have been observing my own grief, experienced due to the death of one of my dogs, Stella. I rescued her from the pound back in 2006, in part to help me through the loss of my father who had died the year before. She let me know very quickly that she only needed three things to be happy: Love, pillows, and treats. In a lot of ways, I don’t think human beings are much different, only we have forgotten the truth of simplicity.
Inherently, grief is the shadow of love. Without love there is no grief. When I am walking through a period of sadness, I always try to keep these thoughts with me and resist the urge to push away or repress the feelings associated with sensations of sadness and loss. As someone in recovery, I do not have the dubious luxury of numbing grief with a six pack of beer or a handful of Xanax, no matter how appealing this option might be. And today, I am grateful for the ability to feel my emotions, especially since I have seen how alcohol and drugs stifle the grieving process, lengthening the duration of mourning, often causing the mourner to become bitter, resentful, self-pitying, and spiritually confused.
In the 1940’s Thomas Merton wrote the following: “The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does the most to avoid suffering, is in the end the one who suffers the most.” As Merton noted, the only way to avoid grief is to reject and hide from love, an option in which I am no longer interested. So although I allow myself to feel the pain of losing my constant companion of the last thirteen years, I am also aware that there is a deep sense of joy and love just below the surface.
In this light, the experience of grief is essentially good, but I sure do miss that little black dog.