When I was two years clean and sober, my much-loved stepmother died suddenly, of complications following a minor surgery. I received the news while I was sitting in a CMA meeting. My phone vibrated, and knowing she was in the hospital, I went outside to answer it. It was my father. His first words were, “Susan is dead.”
“Susan is dead.” I was devastated. How could this be? She was so full of life and warmth, with a huge circle of friends and family who loved her. It seemed impossible, and so shockingly sudden. I had just mailed her Christmas present the day before. I was shattered.
I was fortunate to be deeply immersed in the fellowship and in service when she died, so my support network was in place when this sudden loss shook my life. The same things that had allowed me to stay sober would become the tools that carried me through. The Twelve Steps, my Higher Power, service work and commitments, my sponsor and the support of the fellowship were the answer to this, just as they were to my addiction.
During the initial weeks, my sponsor reminded me: “It’s not just drugs we are powerless over.” I wished I could fix it somehow, or turn time back and undo it. It was clear that I couldn’t control death; it comes in its own time. I was powerless.
Unmanageability reared its head too, as I tried to help my father cope. (He was deep in his own issues with alcohol, and his grief greatly exacerbated that.) My unmanageability around her death manifested in believing I could “get him sober.” My sponsor pointed out the insanity of that idea, gently reminding me that I was powerless over other people; that I could only control my own choices.
The pain and inability to “fix” this convinced me I had to turn it over, let go of trying to control the situation, and that my Higher Power would carry me through without the numbing effects of crystal. Drugs had always been how I coped with difficult feelings, but now I had to walk through this fully present.
There were times I longed for that escape, but I knew that it would only be temporary, and that when came down I would still be in grief, but with my life in shambles as well. I realized that the only way out is through. If I used, I would only delay my feelings, not erase them. Like a physical wound, if my grief was left untreated it would fester and could destroy me.
Just as the steps guided me to face the reality of my choices and actions, I realized I had to face what had happened, turn it over to my Higher Power, and to walk through my feelings with honesty and presence.
I’ve been clean and sober in CMA for nineteen years as of this writing, and in that time have also lost my mother and stepfather, two dogs, and a much-loved friend and sponsee, who died sober, of heart disease.
When my friends and family died I found it comforting to help with work in the house. Sorting their things, donating clothes, and going through family memorabilia was hard, but I realize now that it was service work. It also helped me process the loss, and “make it real” for myself.
If you stay in the rooms, it is very likely that someone you care about will go out and possibly die. That powerlessness is uniquely painful. Knowing that our spiritual solution works and seeing people we love move away from recovery is very, very hard. I have to go to my Higher Power in these instances, and turn the loss over. The illusion of control may return, and the more I entertain the idea that I can “keep someone sober” the more unmanageable my life and feelings become. In these situations, there are times that all I can do is to repeat “God, I give you ___________.”
In these times, I found it useful to put myself deeper into service. I may not have been able to save that friend, but I can still carry the message.
While it is natural to want to isolate when grieving, I found it important to get out and get to meetings. The AA Big Book says, “Frequent contact with newcomers and with each other is the bright spot of our lives.” This is true in times of challenge and loss as well as when things are going well.
Recovery has taught me that nothing is for certain in this world, but one thing I can control is my choices. Today I choose to work my program, to remember my loved ones fondly, and turn my attention to how I can be of service. I know that I have been given a precious gift. I keep that gift by sharing it with others, which is one of the greatest joys in my life. Today I can live in my feelings with a grace I never knew possible in my addiction, and choose to carry the message of recovery.