What is a grief letter and why should I write one?

“Yet why not say what happened?”  –  Robert Lowell

Grief has many forms we do may have not considered yet.  We can grieve a death, a relationship, a lost job, lost time, even objects like a car or a home.  Grief has no limits and is personal to each one of us.  Grief is defined as “deep sorrow especially that caused by someone’s death.  It is a noun which means grief itself is at the root a person, place, or thing.  When I think about grief as a noun I am reminded of the many forms and applications this word has.

AA17.4.24.2018

In my addiction, I went through much grief.  I did not realize it at the time, but I was grieving the loss of control, loss of myself, loss of friends and family I was pushing away and hurting.  I was grieving the life I had lived, the life I wanted so badly to live, and the joy I once had.  My grief was not limited to those people and objects around me, it was bigger than those things.

In a brilliant article “Pay Me Now or Pay Me Later,” John James and Russell Friedman compare the heart to an auto engine. It’s an imperfect world, despite the fantasies of perfectionists, so loss and hurt often start at an early age.  “You might recognize the title from an advertising slogan for an automotive product several years ago,” they write. The idea was that if you spend a little money on maintenance now, you might save a tremendous amount replacing an entire engine later.”

“In the auto commercial it was failure to change the oil filter which led to a build up of crud, which clogged and eventually destroyed the motor. Thus, buy an inexpensive filter now or buy a whole new engine later.”

As we go through life, they say, stuffing when we’re hurt instead of grieving, this “crud” builds up around our hearts and thickens year on year. “Grief is negative, and cumulatively negative,” they say, in a key insight.

Then a serious tragedy hits, like a death or divorce, and we don’t realize it, but it triggers all those past hurts we never grieved. Our hearts are breaking inside – but our heart is so hard outside, due to the thick crud, that we can’t see out, so we go into a tailspin.

Now we’re in big trouble and with decades of crud around our hearts.  I have heard, seen, and felt the pain of others while they were sharing their own grief letters and 100% of the time, afterwards, they all felt a sense of relief and healing.

AA2.4.24.2018While writing my first grief letter during treatment I joked that I would be writing a “grief book”.  This is so true for me and I am sure it is true for many of us in recovery.  As we move forward and continuously revisit some of the 12 steps, we can also find it helpful to continuously put pen to paper and add to our “grief book”.  Some write a letter to their addiction, to alcohol, or to their parents and other loved ones.  While some write an autobiographical story about their past traumas or hardships and what led them into the entangling web of alcoholism and addiction.

Each one of us have a different experience with life and the triumphs and challenges.  I believe grief letters are extremely important to flush out these emotions and finally find freedom from the weight we carry.  We must admit, with brutal honesty, those decisions and choices we have made and the painful outcomes resulting from them in order to grieve, accept, and release.

I have included my first grief letter, on a separate page, written in treatment earlier this year.  I hope you find some inspiration for your own.  Please share any thoughts with me in the comments section.  I look forward to hearing from all of you.

When You Love An Addict

(This wonderful poem was shared with me when I was in a treatment program.  I believe the poetry originated from one of the inmates in a Women’s Prison in Missouri.  I along with my fellow “clients” in treatment really enjoyed the words and I hope this is something I can share to give a perspective that might not have been considered before.)

I am not an alcoholic or addict, but try and love one, and then see if you can look me square in the eyes and tell me that you didn’t get addicted to trying to fix them.

If you’re lucky, they recover.  If you’re lucky, you recover too.

Loving an alcoholic can and will make you the most tired insomniac alive.  You will stand in the doorway of their bedroom and pled with them that you “just want them back”.  If you watch the person you love disappear right in front of your eyes long enough, you will start to dissolve too.  Those not directly affected won’t be able to understand why you are so focused on your loved one’s well-being, especially since, during the times of your family member’s active addiction, they won’t seem so concerned with their own.

Don’t become angry with these people.  They do not understand.  They are lucky to not understand.  You’ll catch yourself wishing that you didn’t understand either.

What if you had to wake up every day and wonder “if today was the day your family member was going to die?” will become a popular, not so rhetorical question.  Drug and alcohol addiction has the largest ripple effect that I have ever witnessed firsthand.

It causes parents to outlive their children.  It causes jail time and homelessness.  It causes sisters to mourn their siblings and nieces to never meet their aunts.  It causes an absence before the exit.  You will see your loved one walking and talking, but the truth is, you will lose them far before they actually succumb to their demons; which if they don’t find recovery, is inevitable.

Addiction causes families to come to fear a ringing phone or a knock on the door.  It causes vague obituaries.  I read the papers and I follow the news; and it is scary.  “Died suddenly” has officially become obituary speak for “another young person found dead from a drug overdose or an alcohol related death”.

Drug and alcohol addiction causes bedrooms and social media pages to become memorials.  It causes things to break, like the law, trust, and the “tomorrows”.  It causes statistics to rise and knees to fall.  Now, praying seems like the only thing left to do sometimes.

People have a way of pigeonholing those who suffer from addiction.  They call them “trash”, “junkies”, or “criminals”, which is hardly ever the truth.  Addiction is an illness.  Addicts have families and aspirations.

You will learn that addiction doesn’t discriminate.  It doesn’t care if the addict came from a loving home or a broken family.  Addiction doesn’t care if you are religious.  Addiction doesn’t care if you are a straight A student or a drop out.  Addiction doesn’t care what ethnicity you are.

Addiction will show you that one bad decision and one lapse in judgement can alter the course of an entire life.  Addiction doesn’t care.  Period.  But you care.

You will learn to hate the drug but love the addict, hate the drink but love the alcoholic.  You will begin to accept that you need to separate who the person once was with who they are now.

It is not the person who drinks, but the alcoholic.  It is not the person who steals to support their habit, but the addict.  It is not the person who spews obscenities at their family, but the addict.  It is not the person who lies, but the alcoholic.

And yet, sadly, it is not the addict who dies, but the person.