How to Prevent Relapse after the Loss of Your Partner

Everything was going great in your recovery – and then the unthinkable happened. You lost your partner, the closest one to you in the world, and suddenly everything changes. Myriad thoughts run through your head, allowing no rest, no surcease from the pain. You just want to crawl in a hole and die yourself. Maybe then it won’t hurt so badly. Lifting your head, you spy a magazine ad (or a TV commercial) for Absolut vodka. Your mind starts working. Maybe just a few drinks, you tell yourself – just to ease the pain. Stop. Before you take that first step into relapse, do yourself a favor and try something different.


Remember What It Took to Get Here

Think about the long and difficult road you traveled to achieve your sobriety. Your partner was there for you every step of the way and that made the effort even more worthwhile. Even as you remember the pride your partner felt and the words of praise, this will bring you anguish as well as a smile. You feel happy remembering the happiness your sobriety brought your partner, the difference it made in your relationship, the plans and hopes and dreams you both shared. Now, admittedly, there’s a hole in your life. It’s a big hole. There’s no denying it. But remembering the good things in your sobriety with your partner will help you through the immediate crisis. It won’t completely take away the pain of your loss. Only time will do that. The benefit of remembering what it took to get you to this place, this sober life in recovery that you now live, is that you recognize being clean and sober was, and is, a life goal that’s very important to you. It was also very important to your spouse, who stood by you through the dark days of detox, then the complexities of treatment and the uncertain days of early recovery. Surely you don’t want to throw all that away. How would your partner feel about you giving up, going back to alcohol? Is backtracking really something you want to do? Already your mind is working up an argument: “This is different. I can’t stand the pain. I just want to forget about it. I don’t care if I die. Maybe that would be better. What good is my sobriety now, if my partner isn’t here to share my life?” It’s normal to want to end your pain. Everyone wants to find a way to lessen pain, and the loss of a partner or loved one is some of the most intense pain imaginable. But, again, it’s an immediate pain that will go away in time. That doesn’t mean that you forget your partner or your life together. It just means that when you do remember your times together, you will remember them fondly and not with so much pain.

Get Out of the House

After you’ve suffered a loss, the natural inclination is to want to be by yourself. That’s exactly the wrong thing to do. You need to be around people, to interact with others, even if it’s on the very least level. Instead of sitting at home, listening to the creak of the house as it settles for the night, go out to a restaurant and have dinner. Call up a friend and meet there. Don’t worry that your friend may feel at a loss for what to say or even that you don’t think you’d be very good company. True friends are there for you in tough times – and this certainly qualifies. While you’re out in public, you’ll have the distractions of other patrons, the waiter or waitress coming and going, the meal itself, and the conversation – however banal – with your friend. It isn’t what you say or your friend has to say that matters. What counts is that you’ve removed yourself from the confines of the solitude of your home and are making an effort to be with others. It’s a means of getting through an hour or two with healthy behavior – instead of resorting to your old bad habits. Okay, you say, you can’t eat out every hour of the day. That’s true, but eating out is just an example of what you need to do to occupy your free time. Obviously, you’ll have to go to work – if you’re still working. If you’re retired, you might wish to pursue a hobby or some recreational activity that will get you out of the house – and in the company of others.

Make a Schedule – and Stick to it

During the early days of your bereavement, it’s important that you make a schedule for the week. This may sound familiar to you, since you most likely made a schedule for yourself in your early recovery. It’s much the same thing, and, frankly, serves much the same purpose: keeping you on track in your sobriety and preventing relapse. What you are doing by making your schedule is allocating sufficient time to the tasks and obligations you need to take care of, as well as carving out hours for relaxation, learning new things, doing something fun, and being with others. The idea is to fill up your days – and nights – so that you don’t have idle time on your hands. That’s when you get into trouble. That’s when your mind starts playing tricks on you, tempting you with cravings to drink or do drugs or to go back to your old hangouts – the same places you swore off when you determined to get sober. Making a schedule also helps give you something to look forward to. Once you’ve finished an item on your list, go on to the next one. Schedules can include projects, tasks that you’ve been meaning to tackle but just haven’t gotten around to, or taking the time to make phone calls to distant relatives or friends. In essence, you’re getting from one place to another, from one hour in the day to the next and the next until you go to sleep. Yes, it may be repetitious. But it gets the job done. Having a goal, as indicated on your list or schedule, means you have something you intend to do. It helps keep you grounded and motivated to continue. There’s also the self-satisfaction you’ll receive from getting all these things done.

Utilize Your Allies

Not everyone understands what you’re going through – not even your closest friends. But you do have powerful and understanding allies in your 12-step sponsor and group members that have become friends. While they may not have lost a partner or loved one, they each have had their misery and misfortune. Most of all, they know what stress and pain can do to derail sobriety. Whether someone’s been clean and sober for just a few months or many years, the loss of a partner can throw anyone into a tailspin. Utilize your 12-step allies now. That’s what they’re there for. It is part of the philosophy of the group’s existence: to help themselves and others to remain clean and sober. Maybe you’ve not been back to a 12-step meeting for quite some time. This sometimes happens after someone’s been in recovery for many years and gradually weaned away from going to meetings. No problem. Just find a meeting that’s close by – or far away, if you want to just go somewhere you don’t know anyone. Being in the familiar atmosphere of the meeting, the cadence of member stories, the affirmation and support and encouragement of fellow members will help you realize that you’re not alone. Yes, your circumstances are different, but everyone’s is, really. That’s why they’re here. They seek the solace and comfort of others who have come through hell – and come back. And they know that whenever they need help, help is there for them. Help is there for you, too. Make use of it. Who knows, by listening to the stories of others, you may find yourself wanting to help another individual who’s in pain. That’s the best form of self-healing – helping another.

Clean Out and Donate

If the loss of your partner was through death, it’s important that you remove the clothing and toiletries and items that belonged to that person. The longer they remain in the house, the longer it will take for you to go through the bereavement process. And it may stall your recovery to continue to have them around. Ask a friend to help you with this task, since it can be very painful to try to do on your own. Having someone else prepared to help you also makes it easier to get to it, since when they show up, they’re ready to go. It isn’t like you’re depending on you to get the ball rolling. Make sure to get the boxes ahead of time, and sort things according to whether they’re able to be donated, or someone else in the family can use them, or they need to be discarded. Arrange for the boxes to be picked up by the charitable organization you’ve chosen, or ask your friend and/or family members to either go with you or take the items to the charity. After the work is finished, be prepared for feelings of sadness. This will take a lot out of you, even if you think you’re able to handle it. Allow the feelings to surface and acknowledge what you feel. The best way to look at this is that it is a necessary step on the road to healing. And you do need to heal. Once the task is over and the items are gone – or scheduled to be picked up – do something with your friend or family member that helped you. Go out for a meal or to a movie or sporting event. This will do several things. First, it’s a way for you to say thank-you to your friend/family member for their help. Second, it’s a way to share conversation in a public place. And, third, it helps signal the start of moving on. Being with others at this time is also beneficial in preventing relapse.

Decide if it’s Time to Move

Maybe your house is just too big now that your partner is gone. You may wish to consider selling it and moving to a smaller place or even to another part of town or a different city. Examine your reasons for wanting to leave. Is it economic? Does it have to do with painful memories everywhere you look? Do you need or want a fresh start? Maybe you want to move closer to your grown children or to be nearer to ailing parents. Maybe you just always wanted to move to a different place. You may even have talked about it often with your partner but times weren’t right for it. Now, maybe this is the time to do it. Since your life is now one of being single, you don’t have any impediments holding you back. Or, if you do have young children at home, perhaps you have different motives for either staying where you are or moving elsewhere. Only you know what’s in your heart, but do give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you just need more time before you make a decision. Allow your other family members and friends to give their opinion or offer to help you with whatever you need. It always helps to have another ear to listen to what you’ve been mulling over in your mind. Depending on your financial situation, moving may not be what you want to do but what you have to do. Again, rely on your family members, friends, and allies to give you encouragement and support during these tough decisions. Just take it one step at a time, one day at a time.

Plan Small, Think Big

What works for one person after the loss of a partner may not work for another. For some individuals, the need to get busy with lots of projects and whirlwind activities is the only way to go. Others do better with more time for meditation, taking care of their body, building up strength, seeing a counselor or therapist to get over the loss. Just as there’s no single treatment for addiction, there’s no single way for those in recovery to get over the loss of a partner. It works differently for everybody. One tip that’s proven helpful for many people is to plan small and think big. What does this mean? It simply means that you start off small – nothing too complicated. The more complex a plan, the more easily you can get discouraged if things go wrong. You could plan a small dinner party, as opposed to a full-scale family reunion, for example. You could plan to repaint a room, instead of tackling redecorating the entire house at once. But you think big in terms of letting light into your life, making room for joy to find its way back, and allowing others to give to you. Thinking big is also a way to acknowledge and solidify your efforts to live your life according to your principles – to be clean and sober. Thinking big allows you to see the road ahead, instead of constantly looking back at the past.

Give it Time

Another tip to getting through this period of anguish is to give it time. Don’t beat yourself up thinking that you should be over it by now or that you should be able to be at a different pace than you are. Who says there’s a timetable? There isn’t one, and no one expects you to jump through hoops or be anything other than who you are right now. Just keep doing what has been working well. Make your schedules and stick to them. Get out of the house and be with people, and utilize your allies when you need them. Add some new things to your to-do list as opportunities arise. Expand your horizons to include places and things that you’ve always wanted to visit or do. Learn a new language or become proficient in a trade, hobby, or sport. Make time to give of yourself to others who may be in need – or just need a friend. One day, and it may be anytime, you will wake up and start looking forward to the day ahead. You will be stronger for having gone through this difficult time – and remained true to your principles. Embrace each and every day of your sobriety and know that your partner rejoices in your achievement. Love doesn’t stop just because someone dies. Remember that, and be comforted. Be strong, be patient, and be constant in your beliefs.

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