What’s grief? An emotional process that can be expected to occur in the aftermath of a significant personal loss, such as a death in the family or the collapse of an important relationship. There’s no set period for grieving, but once it lingers beyond one year, it’s generally characterized as prolonged. There’s also something called anticipatory grief that describes feelings that appear in advance of an expected loss — such as when a loved one is terminally ill.

Like so much else, the grieving process tends to get lost in the miasma of substance use and addiction. It’s not uncommon to arrive in recovery with unresolved grief. Here’s a simple inventory you can apply to your own situation.

First, think of a significant loss about which you believe you may still have unresolved feelings. When you think about this loss, do you find yourself experiencing any of the following?

___  . 1.   I feel that since that loss, life has never been as good.
___ 2.   I really do think it would help me to talk to someone about this.
___ 3.   Thinking about that loss makes me anxious or fearful about the future.
___ 4.   When I think about it, I feel a sadness welling up.
___ 5.   I regret that I’ve never been able to explain adequately to others just how I feel.
___ 6.   I sometimes long for what has been lost.
___ 7.   My feelings about that loss sometimes make it difficult for me to enjoy life.
___ 8.   I know I should be over it, but I just can’t seem to let it go.
___ 9.   I wish I could move on, but I just don’t know how.
___ 10. It’s something I often dwell on when I’m intoxicated.


If you answered yes to three or more, it’s a sign you may benefit from discussing these feelings with a professional.

Ordinarily, the grief process moves through recognizable stages: denial, anger, acceptance of loss. It’s usually accompanied by a temporary increase in stress and a need for time to reflect and resolve feelings. Unresolved grief is on the other hand characterized by:

  1. Depressed mood that continues well beyond an expected period of mourning.
  2. Inability to stop dwelling on the loss, even if it’s long past and you feel it may interfere with your current life.
  3. People close to you regard you as having ‘never gotten over it’.
  4. You feel you’ve lost some of the ability to experience joy in your life.

All those are signals that grief counseling may be worth considering.

A Few Practical Suggestions for Dealing with Unresolved Grief
  1. Don’t be afraid of your feelings. Even the most painful ones are not actually dangerous. You just need to seek support in dealing with them.
  2. Be patient. The grief process takes time. Stop if you feel overwhelmed. You can always resume your work later.
  3. Tell your story. As you go through the process, frame events into a coherent narrative or story of what happened and how it affected you. That’s an important tool in moving on with your life.