Difficult emotional situations can trip us up in recovery, and it rarely gets more difficult than losing a parent. Amy Dresner shares the lessons she’s learned about how to stay sober through a parent’s death.
A month before my mother died, I went to visit her in Albuquerque. She’d been in assisted living for four years, bedbound with progressing dementia. As her only child, I’d been appointed power of attorney and Social Security payee—responsibilities I didn’t feel qualified or ready for, but there was no other choice but to step up. I didn’t make the visit about me. I didn’t cry in front of her, despite the pain of seeing my once fiercely independent mother reduced to a bag of bones, wearing a diaper and not knowing what day it was.
We went through the family photo album. I asked for her forgiveness and gave her mine, and I promised I would be okay if anything happened to her. We never talked about death, although it was imminent. I’d had a difficult relationship with my mother over the years, as she was an alcoholic, workaholic, and not emotionally available. Somehow all that resentment instantly vanished when I saw her in that state, brutally vulnerable and excruciatingly dependent on me and the staff. To be frank, I didn’t feel like I had to get high or drunk because the visit was so painful that I disassociated most of the time—some days wearing one sock, bumping into things, feeling frighteningly disembodied. But when it came time to fiercely advocate for her pain meds or spoon-feed her mashed potatoes or brush her hair, I was right there.
The last time I spoke to my mother was over Facetime, with the help of a social worker. She was fading fast, barely speaking, not eating, eyes closing constantly. I would cry and she would say, “Don’t cry, baby,” which just made me cry more. I decided at that point it wasn’t good for either of us to continue with the Facetime calls. More than anything, a parent wants to know you will be okay when they go. My crying did not convey that or give her permission to leave.
Grief is painful and messy, but I stayed sober through it and you can, too.
The loss of a parent is heavy for anybody, let alone a person in recovery who is usually ultrasensitive and can lack tools for emotional regulation. I can only speak for myself, but at 52, I still felt like a child in many ways, decades of drugs and mental illness stealing the years I should have been growing up. Watching somebody die, especially a parent, elicits feelings of fear, anger, abandonment, regret, and awareness of my own mortality.
Everybody processes grief in their own way, but I want to share a few things that got me through:
- Feel your feelings—cry, scream, whatever—but don’t allow yourself to wallow too long. Give yourself 20 minutes, and then distract yourself and move on.
- Recognize that this is part of life. We are not immune to life just because we are in recovery.
- Stay connected to your sober network, whatever that may be.
- Talk to people who have also lost a parent. They understand in a way other people cannot. People who haven’t lost a parent will say, “I can’t even imagine,” or, “I’m so sorry,” which I didn’t find that helpful.
- Know the grief will come in waves. One day you’ll feel fine and then you’ll hear a sad song or overhear a friend talking to their parent and you’ll break down. That is okay.
- It can feel surreal. It’s been a little over six months since my mom passed, and I find I still can’t wrap my head around it. I wonder if I ever will.
- Know that it will get better in time, but probably never go away.
- Learn to self-soothe. Be kind and gentle with yourself. Nobody does this gracefully.
- Respect the importance of your own recovery. My mother had helped me a lot during my addiction and my attempts to get sober. I didn’t feel I could disrespect her by relapsing, no matter how intense the pain of her loss.
- Keep mementos. In particular, I wish I had kept some of her voicemails. I will never be able to hear her voice again.
- Forgive yourself. There were many times that I got frustrated and lost my temper with her seven phone calls in a row, constant demands, endless complaints that somebody had stolen her toothbrush, deafness and refusal to wear her hearing aids, and, of course, lack of memory. Sometimes those moments of frustration loom large in my memory. I try to remember I did the best I could and that, at the end, she thanked me for taking such good care of her.
Despite the pain, I’m grateful I was able to stay sober through my mother’s death.
Even writing this piece (and I started a few times and broke down) brought up painful feelings of loss. Due to the nature of dementia, I lost her before I really lost her. I realized I would never get from her the attention or love that I had craved as a child, and that is something else I must mourn. But for the first time, I was able to appreciate my mother as a person, claim the gifts she’d given me, and accept her for who she was.
In truth, you stay sober through a parent’s death the way you stay sober through anything. I know people who were loaded at their parent’s bedside or at their funerals, and they regret it deeply. I know people who couldn’t show up because it was too painful, and I saw many people in my mother’s assisted living facility whose relatives had abandoned them. In recovery, we walk through life, as difficult and painful as it can be, and we get to feel all our feelings. After 17 years of relapse, I was clear that getting loaded might provide some brief relief, but in the long run, would only make things worse. These feelings needed to be felt to be healed. There was no escape.
I still feel like I’ve lost a part of me. I still think, “Oh, I want to tell my mom …” and then remember that I can’t. I still faceplant onto my bed and wail and cry out, “Mama.” No matter how imperfect our relationship was, the person who brought me into the world is gone. And that will never change.