Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sober Grief

*** Submitted by Ellie, who is the Founder and co-moderator of Crying Out Now

My Dad died on Saturday.

Even typing those words feels totally surreal. It was very sudden; Friday night he was out having dinner with friends like any other night. Early Saturday morning he woke up with a high fever and chills, and steadily grew worse, so he went by ambulance to the hospital by 10am. At 1pm my phone rang, and it was my sister telling me Dad had an acute infection and they were trying to stabilize him and figuring out the correct antibiotics. At 1:45pm she called again and told me to get to the hospital, now, because he was failing quickly.

I arrived at the Emergency Room at 3pm, and he was gone. I missed his passing by about five minutes.

His condition was complicated by the fact that several years ago he had his spleen removed due to Lymphoma.  The removal of his spleen put him into complete remission from cancer, and he was totally healthy up until the day he died.  Without his spleen, however, he couldn't fight the infection and it galloped through his body so fast there wasn't anything anyone could do.

I am almost four years sober, and over the years I have wondered what would happen if tragedy struck. Would I be able to make it through the death of a loved one? How on earth would I handle grief without drinking?

Now I know. And the answer surprises me.

I don't want to drink.  I have horrible moments where I just want to escape, to not feel what I'm feeling, to drop away through some secret trap door where life feels normal again.  I don't think that is any different, though, than most people feel when faced with unspeakable shock and tragedy.  It feels a lot like a trigger, but I don't want to drink or numb myself.  I just want to jump into some parallel universe where my Dad is still alive.

The waves of emotion roll over me, sweep me up with their sheer force. I flash from knee-buckling sadness to heartfelt gratitude in the blink of an eye. I find myself smiling at a pleasant memory, and then sobbing uncontrollably because he is just so gone.  I slip into periods of numbness, where my mind goes flat and I robotically move through the moments doing menial household chores. 

But I don't want to drink, and I am so, so grateful for that.

I write on my personal blog a lot about being in the moment, about feeling all the feelings - good and bad - and getting to the other side of discomfort, sadness and anger.  I talk about how on the other side of adversity is growth and peace of mind.  Since I have been sober, though, I haven't had to experience this kind of pain. I put into practice everything I have learned in recovery, and I feel all the feelings.  I remember that they can't kill me, although there are minutes where they sure feel like they could.  I wait it out. 

And no matter how bad it is, it passes. Then it comes again, and I repeat the cycle all over again.  Bit by bit, I can feel my body and mind healing. Life will never be the same, but I'm learning to embrace my New Normal.

It feels so much like early sobriety, where every emotion - joy, sadness, anger, regret - feels so pointy.  Lights and sounds are grating, confusing, and the simplest decisions befuddle me.  But now I know I can make it through.  That is the gift of recovery; you experience all your pain, all your joy, and you fold your life experiences into the fabric of what makes you you.  You don't numb them out or go around them, so you give yourself the gift of growth.

I surrender to the feelings, to the fact that so much of life is outside of my control, it's just that it's hard to remember that when life is clicking along nicely.  When something like this happens, it reminds you to be grateful, to accept life on life's terms, because you never know what is going to happen next.  No matter how much you wish you could control how life will unfold, you can't.

Surrender and acceptance.  They bring so much peace.

My father was a big part of why I finally got sober. During a family intervention, as I sat on the couch sobbing about my worthlessness, drowning in self-centeredness and self-pity, he looked me right in the eye and said, "No matter what, Ellie, we love you.  No matter what."   He was by my side as I felt my way through early recovery, and he did it with an open mind and a loving heart.  

If I were drinking, I could make the feelings less scary, less awful, for a brief period of time.  I could try to manufacture the emotions I wanted, hide from reality.  What I didn't appreciate, when I was drinking, is that you never grow when you constantly fast forward through the hard stuff. You don't learn to metabolize pain, any more than you get to experience authentic joy. If I were drinking I would be sobbing into my cup, wailing about all the pain.  I would slip into the victim role, and miss all the beauty and gratitude that is everywhere, even in the face of all the grief.  I would hijack this tragedy to make it all about me.

I was reluctant to even write about how I'm feeling, because these days are not about me, but then I realized that in sharing our experiences - like all the beautiful, honest, brave submitters to this blog - we all grow together.

I'm here, I'm feeling it, and I am going to be okay.  I get to experience all of it, and it is full of moments of grace, joy and peace that I would have missed if I were drinking. 

I am truly, truly grateful that he got to know me as a sober woman of grace, dignity and compassion.  He taught me those values, and it is an honor to give them back to the world.


  1. Beautiful beautiful tribute, and so reassuring to know that when the worst happens, we CAN survive it.

  2. Thank you so much for being so open and honest with yourself, and the rest of us. There is a kind of beauty in grief, and I'm glad you're not numbing it away.

  3. I'm so sorry about your dad, Ellie. I'm relieved, too, that you don't want to drink. What an odd silver lining, but a silver lining.

  4. I have been sober for 10 months, and already I am so grateful to be able to experience the hard stuff. I thought the hard things would just be hard, but what I didn't know is that there are so many gifts that come along with them.

    I am so sorry to hear about your father's passing. Especially so suddenly. I hope you can find moments of peace in the pain. And thank you for sharing your words, your story about grieving sober. Thank you.

  5. Ellie, you are so brave for sharing about this on the blog so soon after your father passing. My heart goes out to you.

    Wishing you peace, dear girl...

  6. Ellie, thank you. Thank you so much for shaping this and putting it into words. You are expressing thoughts and feelings I've had and I could never articulate why I'm so grateful to be sober, even when there is tragedy and pain. You've just spelled it out. Thank you for shining a light on the path for so many. You are a GIFT. Your father is surely so proud of you today. xoxo

  7. I've been hoping and praying that you haven't wanted to pick it up... I knew that you wouldn't, but I was hoping the urge wouldn't add to this difficult time.
    Thank you for sharing this, for those of us who wonder about ourselves too.
    Love you.

  8. I am so sorry...I truly loved the last line you wrote...
    Take care of yourself as you move through this time.

  9. "You don't learn to metabolize pain, any more than you get to experience authentic joy."
    This is what really struck me tonight when reading your post. It's so, so true. In no way am I suggesting my loss this week is like yours, but I had to put to sleep my 18 year old cat this week. It fucking sucks and I am grieving and I am sad. And the thing that kills me the most - makes me feel the worst - is that in the back of my mind I am using this awful incident as an excuse to get drunk. Getting drunk is NOT making it better, it only numbs it for a while. That is why your words, as I quoted above, really made sense to me. That's all I have to say. Wish it were more poetic, but its just the honest truth. I hope you are feeling peace with your fathers passing and I am truly sorry for your loss.

  10. Ellie, my sincere condolences. You are amazing. When my mom died 11 years ago, I didn't drink but I used (pills) and thus lost over ten years clean. You still have a lot of feelings to get through dear girl, take the very best care of yourself. You honour your father by doing so.

  11. Ellie: I remember reading an obituary written by the children about their Dad. It described how he loved life etc and that one day he was called by his wife and told him that their son had been killed in a car accident and she wanted him to come home but needed him to stop drinking which he did for the next 30 yrs until he died. I was amazed and wondered how he could do this turnaround in the face of such a loss. I think you just beautifully and poignantly answered my question

  12. I have been thinking of you for the past few days and holding you close in my heart. Sending love to you, dear sister. So sorry for your loss.

  13. I'm so sorry for your loss, and thank you for sharing.

    bless you, Sue

  14. Oh Ellie, I'm so sorry to hear about your Dad's passing. I haven't yet had such tradegy in my sobriety and often wonder if I'll remain resolved. Thank you for sharing with me, I'll be praying for your and your family here.
    Blessings to you.

  15. I am so sorry to hear about this. What you said reminds me of something I heard in a meeting once. An older woman was talking about the death of her adult daughter, and she said that when she didn't want to drink during that horrific experience, that is when she knew that she would be OK, that she wouldn't automatically run back to drinking when something bad happened. The worst thing had happened to her, and she didn't drink. Sending good thoughts your way....

  16. Jessica (@wtfinmontana)June 27, 2011 at 1:54 PM

    So sorry for your loss. Just literally found this site via Band Back Together 2min. ago and I can't stop reading. Decided to quit drinking about 11 days ago. Thanks in advance! :)