Protecting Our Sobriety When
Someone We Love Dies
We never thought it would happen to us. In a world of casual acquaintances, on rare and special occasions someone comes into our life whom we feel privileged to know and deeply love. They may be our friend, spouse, child, or someone else, but, whoever they may be, the sight of their face never fails to make us smile. Their joys and pains become ours, and we feel what they feel without spoken words. It is cliché, but knowing them actually makes us want to become a better person. We would do anything for them. We feel like the world has to be made a better place for them, for no other reason than that the greatest honor and blessing is having them in our life. Above all we want to protect them and make them feel safe and loved. We love them so much that, in fact, if our love alone could have saved them, then they never would have died.
There isn’t a word to describe the shock that follows such a death. A disbelieving, numbing state. An invisible veil that separates us from everybody and everything familiar. In the days that follow we go through the motions consciously, whether to eat, bathe, or do simple things like taking sympathy calls. Even breathing becomes a deliberate act. We observe ourselves as if watching another person while picking out flower arrangements and approving the order of services. Nothing seems quite real. There are slight exceptions to this, of course, like when we woke up in the morning and for a fleeting moment had forgotten what happened. Words like grief and beloved – we understood what those meant now, too. But, all in all, we are still in a daze during the funeral. Familiar faces approach us and speak words of condolence. Everyone pays their last respects, their words evaporating into a heaviness that hangs over us like a cloud. We have trouble absorbing anything. There’s nothing anyone can really say, anyway, when the most important person in the world has died.
Perhaps no life event is more fraught with peril than the death of a loved one. We can never be fully prepared, no matter how it happens. In a place deep down inside of us, something feels decidedly wrong. Someone and something is horribly missing. It’s like part of us has died too, the best part, and we aren’t ready to say goodbye. The memorial service is only an introduction to our bereavement, moreover. There is a long and difficult journey ahead. No matter how appallingly unfair and punishing the grieving process may sound from afar, the reality is worse.
Social commentators tell us that grieving is hard because our society is a death-denying culture that does not like to think about death. In consequence we turn the phenomenon of death and dying into something abstract and almost invisible. We shutter away the old and infirm into institutions and facilities, for example. Our medical technologies are geared toward avoiding death at all costs, and science has dissected death into so many bits that it sometimes becomes impossible to know whether someone even is dying, or the exact moment of death. Even in art and film death is something that happens primarily to throwaway characters who are easily forgotten. Over time our brains become accustomed to thinking that death only happens to other people who we either don’t know or don’t know well. Our world is about progress, moving forward. Nothing should detract from the idea of a long and happy life.
There is more to bereavement than that, of course. Our loved one is an indispensable part of our lives, a human institution who represents stability, meaning and purpose. Their death profoundly impacts our physical, mental, and emotional well-being like nothing else can. There are no quick or easy fixes for loss, either, only the long and drawn out grieving process. While alone with our thoughts, we relive happier times and ask ourselves over and over the what-if’s, how’s, and why’s. We pass through the recognizable stages of grief – denial, bargaining, anger, and depression – in no particular order, without consciously identifying them, and oftentimes revisiting them. Within these stages there is a repeating cycle in which we alternately are stricken with painful memories and thoughts, and then feeling better, even okay, if only for awhile. Then the draining, exhausting emotions of anger, fear, despair, and sometimes guilt, come flooding over us like a wave. It’s relentless. The particulars of this process differ from person to person, but invariably everyone will take a long time to overcome the natural denial response and finally reach the final stage: acceptance. Grieving may last months for some. For others, years.
It has been said that there is no right way to grieve but, for the alcoholic or addict, this process can take an unmistakably deadly turn. In our past lives, our reaction to every life stressor had been an overwhelming desire to escape through drinking or using drugs. Death’s sting immediately and invariably strikes us as too heavy a burden to bear. If we say to ourselves, I can’t do this, I must have help, in reality this is the specter of using and relapse returning to haunt us. This happens when we are most vulnerable and our hopes and dreams are dashed. Inside we feel as if we are dying of a broken heart, and picking up and using again superficially appears to be an entirely reasonable course of action.
We who are recovered must be cautious when tragedy happens to us. The truth, we well know, is that drugs and alcohol respect no one. Our malady is merciless, unforgiving. It doesn’t care whether we are grieving and find ourselves in our darkest hour. It would gladly see us fall into mental and physical decline and finish us off for good. The recovered alcoholic and addict, therefore, must take positive steps to assure light at the end of the tunnel.
First, we continually turn to God for support. As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the one thing that feels natural is to run away and hide. Yet, it was the Lord himself who, being in agony, “prayed more earnestly.” Luke 22:44. He turned to the Father, and we must copy his example. God is near to the brokenhearted. Whether crying, shouting, sobbing, or pleading, we can and should unload all of our feelings – our sorrow, pain, loneliness, helplessness, and even anger – before Him. He is a great and abundant God who understands and will carry us through. It is written:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God.
Isaiah 43:2. God has all power. He supports us, takes up our pain, and bears our suffering. Even though we don’t understand how, make no mistake: God will help us to find our way back again. In Him all things are possible, and we will learn to live again and find both meaning and purpose in life.
Further, we reach out to family and friends. They want to help, to support us, and to share our burden. They will be there to embrace us, and cry with us, while we talk about and relive our beloved’s life and death, no matter how many times we repeat ourselves. Staying close to friends and family protects us from total isolation, fear, and loneliness even when it feels like the world is falling apart. They help ground us enough to push on through the emotional chaos until we are ready to embrace life again. Some of them have suffered profound loss, too, and hearing their stories somehow helps impress upon us the reality that death is an unavoidable part of life, but something we can get through.
Finally, our attention to the 12 Steps must be resolute. The Big Book doesn’t have a chapter specifically devoted to death, and one isn’t required. We merely reach a broader understanding of its scope, and we continue to process our feelings and resentments as outlined in the program. Most importantly, we must continue to carry the message to other alcoholics and addicts. By doing this we aren’t trying to ignore or avoid facing our own grief. We rather are pursuing 12th Step work, our most noble purpose, with newly opened eyes, the blinders off, to the reality of how devastating loss can be for others. With informed empathy and caring, we can better share with others not only our pain and grief but also our experience, strength, and hope, because we do continue to live clean and sober. Helping others reminds us that we are still needed, and somehow it helps heal our broken hearts. Watching people recover and go on to help others will always be the bright spot of our lives. See Big Book, at 89.
Grieving the death of a loved one invariably takes a turbulent and irregular course, but with proper support we eventually pick up the pieces of our lives and embrace life anew. We convert the emotional energy spent on grieving and apply it to other relationships. By doing this, we have not forgotten our loved one – far from it. We belong to them, and they to us, forever. Nothing can ever change this. While we might still sometimes feel sad when thinking about them, more often our thoughts are pleasant memories of something they had done or said. We do smile again, and we remember them without suffering disabling grief. Moreover, by coming face to face with death, and experiencing grief firsthand, we become better teachers about life. There will come a day when we can look back on our own experience and be better prepared to help others, “comfort[ing] those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves received from God.” 2 Corinthians 1:4. We use our grief to transform ourselves into better human beings, for the betterment of everyone around us.