Recovery means different things to different people. Some people are perturbed by the word “recovery” because they associate it with things like substance abuse problems or the series of actions in, for example, twelve-step programmes. “Grief is not a disease or addiction!” some people might say.
Some people may react to the word “recovery” angrily by saying: “You can’t recover from loss,” or “I will never be the same after this”. When using this word, it is not meant to suggest that you must “get over” your loss.
Your life will never be the same after loss, but…
Regardless of whether the memories are good or bad, you will never forget the important people in your life. These people could be immediate family, a spouse, a child, or anyone else with whom you had a deep emotional attachment. When an important person in your life passes away, you don’t forget them and your feelings for them never fade away.
So, the question then becomes, if these feelings never go away, is recovery possible, and what exactly does it mean? The meaning of the word recovery in this context could be a subject of academic debate, so it’s important to establish the meaning of the word before describing the process of grief recovery.
The difference between grief recovery and 12-step recovery
The difference between grief recovery and the recovery referred to in 12-step programmes lies in this fact: Addiction recovery is focused on treating a disease, whereas grief is not pathological, and is not treated as a disease. Grief is a normal and natural reaction to loss.
So, rather than treating grief as a disease, what you need to focus on primarily in the grief recovery process, is to discover and complete what was left emotionally unfinished with someone who is gone. This loss can result from someone dying, but not always. Grief can also occur because of divorce, estrangement, if the person has moved far away, or any other of several changes in your life.
So, what is the meaning of the word “Recovery” in Grief Recovery?
The type of recovery in this regard may be more accurately termed as “completion-recovery”. Recovery is about becoming emotionally complete and beginning the next phase of your life with a fresh perspective. The process of grief recovery could be described as not dragging “unfinished business” into the next phase of your life. You don’t want to take the damage from past relationships into a new marriage, a new job, or other new relationships.
Grief can result from losing someone with whom you have good memories, but it can also be associated with emotional trauma incurred from abuse. The process of completion-recovery aims to help you become the person you were before you were damaged in the past.
This does not mean you will no longer miss the person or feel sad about that person being gone. You may want to retain fond memories, and that is encouraged. In the case of bad memories, you may want to forget those, but it’s not really possible to forget. The goal in recovery is not to try to forget, but to deal with bad memories so that they no longer adversely affect your ability to make choices in life.
One fallacy that some people perpetuate is that you must “get used to your new normal”. This implies that you are a damaged person, and you should just accept it. On the contrary, grief recovery should enable you to be fully capable of taking on new relationships and experiencing the full richness of life.
What our goal is for people in grief recovery
A lot of the pain from the past lies in a sense of “unfinished business”. Part of recovery lies in learning to deal with emotions that are so painful that they interfere with your ability to function optimally in life. When a person dies or goes away, there are memories that involve a need for some type of resolution, whether it involved confronting and stopping an abuser or experiencing things we longed to have with someone in a positive relationship. This does not mean you can change the past, but there are things you can do in the present to attain a feeling of completion toward these feelings.
Depending on the type of relationship you had and the type of loss you are experiencing, the recovery process will take a variety of forms. One example is a widow who lost her husband after 45 years who can only remember the final year of his life. In this case, we would want to help her remember those previous years and the joy they brought to her life. On the other hand, the approach would be different for a person whose father died, but he was abusive and was only present for short periods of time. In this case, we would want to help the grieving person learn to minimize the effect that these painful memories have on his or her life going forward.
As a final thought, it’s important to remember that the pain you feel regarding a loss does not have to be “the new normal” for your life. Although you cannot and should not try to forget the past, you can recover from loss and have a fulfilling and joyful life.