The ABC’s and 123’s of Grief in Sobriety
By: Tami Harper Winn
It’s blue. It’s mangy. It’s grimaced. It doesn’t make any sense when it talks to you. It’s a cross between the Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch. It lives in the trash can in the allies of our hearts. It rears its head when it wants to. You have no control over the monster that is within. It’s called grief. There is no happy little street where everyone gets along or alphabet songs to sing that will help anyone make sense of what is happening when struck with it. So let’s talk about the beast that no one wants to admit is there.
In sobriety, grief is rarely, if ever talked about. It is a taboo topic and most certainly dominates and permeates every aspect of sobriety. Grief and loss are a given in life and in sobriety. No one speaks of it. There is no chapter in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous to address it. There are sections on acceptance, sex, and amends for starters. However, there is no mention of loss or how to deal with it. Bill’s Story in the Big Book clearly outlines loss throughout the story and the book itself is laden with loss of all types. There are clear cut directions on how to clear up the wreckage of the past, but yet mystery shrouds what is left behind when you suffer such a loss or how to deal with it. Sometimes just turning it over won’t be enough to survive the certain trials and low spots that they talk about. That’s why the book states that sometimes outside help is needed and it is encouraged.
The Big Book helps people to get sober. That’s its main purpose. But dealing with sobriety is a much bigger feat than the Big Book of AA can address or was meant to. So I hope that through my writing I can help with what I have learned along the way. I have shared parts of my sobriety with others and how I have done it. I will share this part too. I am a full supporter of the 12 step recovery program of AA. It has saved my life. The qualify of life I have now after taking the steps has greatly depended on what I did with those tools given to me. It did not cure me. I only have a daily reprieve based on my spiritual maintenance. So in order for me to keep it, I must give it away. Here are the ABC"s and 123"s I have learned about grief.
1. NO TWO LOSSES ARE THE SAME
A) No matter what anyone tells you, they do not know how you feel. You are a separate entity with your own feelings and your own thoughts. You walked this road your own self and they have walked theirs. There were different factors that were involved in every story making it unique in itself. So your grief is yours and no one else’s, no matter how they were involved or related in your grief story.
B) Just because you lost a mom and I lost a mom doesn’t mean it’s the same. I may have had a difficult relationship with my mom, not able to finish the past hurts and you may have had a great relationship with your mother and she passed with love. Both examples include the loss of a mother but two very different journeys’, so two very different roads of grief. Let me reiterate, no one knows how you feel and that is ok. They don’t have to. You just need to know you are normal and these are normal feelings. Others can only help by being supportive.
2. REALIZE THAT YOU ARE NOT ALONE
A) You will feel very alone. Death and loss brings out the worst in people. It is not their softer, prettier side. Often times, because of lack of resources, they haven’t processed their own grief story and so they don’t know how to be there for you. This is very difficult and can result in sadness, isolation, and resentment. Do not take the bait. The fisherman luring you wants to lure you to your death, your alcoholic death.
B) Reach out. It is the hardest thing to do when suffering any type of loss but, it must be done like breathing air must be done. There are all types of resources available to help. There are grief recovery groups in your area, just Google them. Your church may offer some and there are plenty of free ones available that I have found online. There are also books galore out there to help with the process. I have studied many of them in search for relief. I have found one solid book that is exactly what I need and I use it with my sponsees as part of their recovery program. I have shared it with other old timers in recovery that now use it with their sponsees as well. It is called “The Grief Recovery Handbook” by John W. James and Russell Friedman. It’s a small read but more valuable than any other single resource I have found. Together, combined with other resources, it can help to navigate some of you through tough waters.
3. THERE ARE MANY TYPES OF GRIEF
A) Grief does not always come from a physical death. It can be spiritual, mental, financial, and physical. There are all types of “deaths” that occur on a quite frequent basis. There are losses of jobs and security; there are losses of a pet; there are losses of marriages or relationships; losses of homes or items that had personal value; there are losses of dreams and health; there is the loss of children when we become “empty nesters.” The amount of losses that can be incurred in a person’s lifetime are too many to ever be able to count or name. Some hit us harder than others and some don’t affect us at all like they would someone else. For an alcoholic the loss of our best friend/lover (insert drug of choice) is a key loss that we must deal with immediately as we begin the journey of sobriety.
B) There is no textbook on how you “should” be handling any particular loss. It is yours personally and you have the right to grieve any loss you suffer. Being able to identify that you have a loss and that you are experiencing grief is paramount. Knowing this, you can go forward and get the help to go through it and make it part of your story. Identification of the loss goes a long way. I have found that writing a “Dear John” letter to what ever my loss is, has helped me to say goodbye. I first did this (suggested by my Alateen sponsor) when I said goodbye to my best friend from high school who had died from a drunk driving accident. I have used it in early sobriety to say goodbye to alcohol as well. It’s a tool in my toolbox.
4. THERE IS NO TIME LIMIT ON GRIEF
A) No one person has the answer to how long anyone should grieve. Depending on the degree of loss felt, the time to grieve varies greatly per individual and each loss. Putting a clock on it only sets us up for disaster and becomes a ticking time bomb of emotions ready to explode at any given moment. Time does not heal it. Time does not make it go away. Again, depending on the degree of loss, time may never make it ok. We just learn how to live life differently with it.
B) I asked my boss as I was suffering my first significant family loss, the recent loss of my dad, when does the pain end? I knew that he had walked a similar looking road in his past and perhaps had something to offer a fellow traveler. He stated that there is good news and bad news. He said “the bad news is that the pain never goes away” and “the good news is that it doesn’t go away, because it meant that I loved that person and they made an impact on my life enough to miss them when they were gone.” That altered the way I perceived time and grief. I understood that the attachment I had to my loss was significant and I was ok to grieve if for however long I needed to. I knew that it would get different. Accepting that I would always miss my dad helped me to understand that loving someone is a good thing, even when they are gone physically. He impacted my life beyond measure. Why wouldn’t I miss him? I am grateful for that.
5. THERE IS NO SET WAY TO GRIEVE
A) Many people will tell you to replace the loss with something else. This never works. Nothing can replace the loss itself so trying only stalls the healing. Proper closure does not happen. Others will give you space believing that being alone somehow helps you to heal faster. This is incorrect as previously stated because isolation, especially for an alcoholic, is highly dangerous. Many believe that you should just tough it up and get over it. Time, again, is your friend. Take as much of it as needed and accept that you are hurting and its ok. Some believe that you should switch your focus and not think about the loss. This is disaster waiting to happen. Avoidance never helped anyone, especially escape artists like alcoholics. Trying to find something or someone else to replace the painful feelings you are experiencing only temporarily stands to alleviate your symptoms. Like with alcohol, the hangover hurts worse, and our usual course of action would be to drink again to alleviate that pain. The vicious cycle repeats itself for an alcoholic and with grief it is no different. Dulling the pain is only a temporary fix. It does not allow the person grieving to go through the normal process. And my all time favorite is that you just need to “get back on the horse”. A. That only applies when a horse is involved and B. It only applies if you have fallen off of a horse. C. Life is not a horse.
B) Just remember, if it doesn’t kill you, then it probably doesn’t have the power to do so. You are the only one that has the power, besides alcohol or drugs, to do that. As long as you don’t drink or drug you can make it to the other side. Once you begin to replace your feelings and your loss you stand the chance of drinking again and for us, “to drink is to die.”
C) Cry, cry a lot. Scream, scream till your voice is hoarse. Get it out of you. Poison can come in many forms and cause serious complications. Stuffing your feelings can certainly fester into a poison that threatens your sobriety and your life. Talk to people, even when you don’t want to. Do the next indicated right thing. Ask for help, the hardest to do, but mandatory to an alcoholic who is suffering in silence. With us, the simple things matter, and are often times the hardest to do. If the obsession to drink has been removed and you have managed even one day without drinking, then anything is possible. Including surviving loss.
You are a part of the bigger picture. You are in the middle of writing your own story. There are people out there that you haven’t even met yet that need you and that story. Life was definitely meant to be lived and there is always a solution to every problem. Sometimes there is no easy fix and sometimes things will never be the same again. One thing that has become very apparent to me in my days so far is that change is a constant and something an alcoholic despises. Today, I look at it like this…if everything stayed the same I would never grow (growth does hurt) and my life would be the most boring life I could imagine. I would not have had all the wonderful experiences that I have been blessed to have without the opposite to help me see them.
Today I do not have to self harm or self destruct. I do not have to measure my insides by anyone else’s outsides. I do not have to do anything perfectly. I do not have to drink or drug or die today. I do not have to blot out my very existence to the bitter end. I do, however, get to live this life with all the possibilities of hope and love that it has to offer. I do get to learn to live with all the yucky painful parts as well and absolutely none of those define me. I have survived the disease of alcoholism for today and today only. I can use these experiences as tools for my toolbox to build my new life with or I can perish in the fiery pits of hell that I can so easily find again, if I so choose to. As long as I don’t drink today, I have another day to try to make sense of the life God has given me. He got me this far, why would he let go of me now?
Remember people only have the tools that they were given to use to help us with dealing with loss. Most people have never been taught how to grieve; most have avoided it at all costs. They teach us how to call 911 if there is an emergency. They teach us how to stop, drop, and roll if we are ever on fire, but how often do any of those scenarios get presented in our everyday life? Now, how often does a person experience loss of one sort or another in their daily lives? More often than imaginable. Why then doesn’t anyone think it important enough to teach us how to grieve in a healthy way? We may never know the answer to that question. If I found out why I’ll certainly fill you in as well. For now, use the information above to make a start and don’t stop until you find what you need to survive this absolute.
As the story goes, the little puppet called grief that I mentioned earlier plays its part in my life today. I embrace it, along with all the other characters on this journey. This street in my life is not a show that can be acted out on television or one that is as easy as 1-2-3. Each character on my street of life is meant to teach me something, just like the puppets on a very popular children’s show that I am referring to. They all serve their purpose in the grandest show on earth... life.
Tami Harper Winn