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How Do I Stay Sober After Losing A Loved One

by Olivia Pennelle ❘  

How I Dealt with Losing My Brother to Stay Sober

My Facebook feed today was a reminder of this time last year. I was boarding a plane to Australia to attend my brother’s funeral. At just 42 years old, he committed suicide. It broke our family’s hearts. In spite of the horrific event and the challenges it presented, I stayed sober.

There was no note. We don’t know why he took his life. He left the UK for Australia soon after becoming qualified as a doctor. For the most part, we thought he had a happy life there. We heard he was respected professionally, how successful he was, and was the life and soul of the party amongst his many friends. He wasn’t the best at communicating with family, but that was just Al. I just accepted that was who he was, and was the dutiful sister sending my wishes on birthdays and Christmas.

I could’ve done more. I wish I’d tried harder. I’m a terrible sister. These were the phrases I repeated over-and-over as I learned the news of his death.

Grief is a challenging beast. I remember writing about it the day after we buried him; I described it as a tsunami. The stages of grief come in waves: denial and shock, anger, guilt and acceptance, depression and moving on, and finally closure. It is incessant. Anyone who has experienced grief will tell you that this process is not experienced in a linear fashion—you oscillate between them. Just when you think you’ve finally accepted their passing, you’re hit with a wave of emotion.

I’ve remained relatively fortunate in having limited experience of grief. I’ve not lost any family members as an adult. For that, I’m grateful. I am also glad I had some years of sobriety under my belt because had I been in early recovery, I’m not sure I’d have coped.

I had never felt pain like this before. It was a formidable force.

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As awful as this sounds, I didn’t really have time for grief—I was in the midst of a plan to move to the US, and I was two months out. I hadn’t anticipated being floored by such horrific news. I was struggling (at best) to cope with my move, never mind taking on something that would challenge my existence, sense of purpose, and relationships in life. I certainly didn’t have the mental or physical capacity to travel to Australia and back in 5 days.

If there was one time I wanted to escape myself in my five years sober, it was this. I wanted to run a mile from this reality. The pain felt piercing, like a hot poker as it seared my heart.

But I didn’t escape. I faced it. I was present for my family.

I showed up, and I stayed sober. This is how:


  • I immediately called my trusted friends in recovery and told them what happened. Sharing the news took some of the weight off my shoulders. Talking helped tremendously. I cried, and they listened.
  • I got to a meeting. I needed community, and that felt like the safest place for me to be. I also shared about what was happening for two reasons: first, so that people knew what was going on for me, and it would extend my support network because they would watch out for me and check-in with me; second, because it gives a message to others that life happens in recovery, and we don’t need to use.
  • I attended his funeral. I asked people at work for help to take time off, and they agreed. Once I made the practical arrangements, it was just about putting one foot in front of another. That included setting up check-in calls with people in recovery throughout traveling to Australia, asking flight attendants to seat me somewhere quiet and to not offer me alcohol, and making sure I had a backpack of healthy food to eat.
  • I made sure I supported my body by eating well, getting lots of sleep, drinking lots of water, and reducing caffeine.
  • I had friends stay with me for the first few days because I knew that would help with the trauma. I woke up in panic, crying, and in shock. Having someone close by eased the pain.
  • I increased my self-care activities to support myself: journaling, baths, exercise, yoga, anything that was gentle, stress relieving, and helped process the trauma.
  • I was of service to my family. I helped with arrangements, I asked how I could help, I supported my siblings and parents. It seems odd that I could help others when hurting, but helping my family is exactly what I needed because it made me focus on them and not me.
  • I let the feelings come and didn’t resist them. I allowed myself to cry—to sob—to feel depressed and question my existence, to be angry, and to feel lost. I let them come, and I observed them—trying not to be too attached to the feeling. This was perhaps the most challenging because I’ve spent my entire life wanting to avoid difficult feelings and emotions.

By having that strategy, I got through my travel to Australia and back in five days. I was able to attend the funeral, and I was present for it all. I didn’t need to use or drink—that would’ve only made matters worse.

It’s a year on today. The feelings—the loss, sense of tragedy, sadness—are still there, just a little less intense. I still cry.

Grief changes you. You question your mortality. Because of its finality, it is a stark wake-up call that this life isn’t a practice run—it’s for real. Make the changes to live the life you want. One thing it confirmed to me is that Al would’ve wanted me to move to the US and pursue my dreams—to live a life that was full and has purpose. Drinking or using has no purpose in my life today.

I miss you, Al.

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