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Incomplete Grief: A Catalyst for Addiction and Recovery

LukeNotes, Summer 2012

Clinicians at Saint Luke Institute often hear our clients speak of their problematic drinking, gambling, eating or sexual acting out as being triggered or fueled by some major loss which was not sufficiently acknowledged, processed and expressed. Such inchoate, or incomplete, grief can easily become the catalyst for addictive behaviors.

It may be the death of a parent, other family member, close community member or illness/disability which triggers an urge to self-soothe as part of a self-defeating cycle. The loss may even be of a much earlier nature, in association with family of origin issues, childhood trauma, bullying experiences and the like. Whatever the content of the proximate cause, it is often a similar process of inchoate grieving which leads down the road to addictive or maladaptive behaviors.

In many instances, the incomplete nature of the grieving is fairly obvious; for instance, when a priest realizes he got stuck in role during a family funeral and was unable to feel his own feelings. Other times, the issue is harder to clearly discern. Since it is counter-intuitive to intentionally experience the pain of loss many people simply avoid or deny their grief with the hope that it will just go away.

It is not uncommon to hear a client say, “I’ve already dealt with that,” only later to have them realize it was dealt with in a surface manner, or perhaps not at all – this phrase can sometimes even be a euphemistic way of saying,“I’m still trying to ignore those painful feelings.”

Grieving Adequately

To grieve adequately, one must first consciously recognize that a loss has occurred, acknowledge the depth and importance of that loss, and allow and accept the full range of feelings attending the loss.

This latter stage is often the most troublesome because many people are understandably uncomfortable with powerful and vulnerable feelings. The problem is that such powerful feelings will find an outlet one way or another if not intentionally processed through and expressed to others.

Unfortunately, because there are many “quick fixes” (such as food, sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling) at the ready, these self-medicating mechanisms can become reinforced and hardened into addictive behaviors.

Allowing, accepting and expressing the feelings associated with a loss or losses also can be a complicated process since feelings of grief often unfold overtime, as opposed to being a discrete/finite (“one and done”) process.

Likewise, grief related to an earlier loss in life can be kindled by an additional, new loss.

Fortunately, just as the incomplete grieving can trigger or relate to addictive behavior, addressing these problems with intentionality can provide a jumpstart toward recovery

Grief and Loss Timeline

One way to tap this intentionality is to create a “grief and loss timeline.”

It is often surprising and illuminating to actually see on paper how many losses one has encountered over his or her lifetime. Likewise, it can help in the phase of “recognition” to see patterns or clusters of significant losses, which might provide a visual connection to some level of depression or acting out around that time.

Engaging in such a process can also help one to acknowledge the depth of the losses, with the possibility of compounding effects made more real by constructing a timeline.

By sharing the timeline with at least one other person, a therapist, or better yet in a group therapy setting where others are doing the same, there can be a deeper acceptance of the impact of the losses.

In addition, expressing the losses in this manner can help to better integrate the feelings around all that has transpired, while gaining a greater sense of control and understanding, rather than simply feeling overwhelmed.

Grief as Source of Healing

It can be an incredibly freeing and cathartic experience for a person to tap the energy contained within inchoate grief as a spring board towards recovery. Once an individual has discovered that this emotional energy does not need to be feared or avoided, they are often able to harness its power in a manner which is truly self-soothing. In this regard, inchoate grief, approached with intentionality, has the potential to be a source of great integration and healing.

Steve Alexander, Ph.D., is a case manager for the Halfway House Program of Saint Luke Institute.

About Halfway House

Halfway House is a transitional housing program for clergy and men and women religious who typically have complete the residential program, but need additional time to integrate treatment gains before returning to their diocese or community. The program also can help those who have relapsed, or are transitioning out of religious life and ministry.

The program typically lasts two to four months, but varies based on need. Participants are encouraged to practice newly developed interpersonal skills, emotional coping techniques and healthier ways of living within a safe, therapeutic, but somewhat less structured environment.