I recently was asked to lead at an online meeting. This is what I said about loss and grief. Then, I asked some of you to share your responses, and you did!
Spencer on Loss and Grief
Thank you, Jo. thank you for inviting me. I have some gratitude that today is a holiday in the USA so that, I'm not at work, which I normally would be at two o'clock in the afternoon, which is what it is for me here in Michigan. and that I'm able to share something with you. When Jo asked me to speak, I thought, what am I gonna talk about?
And then of course I let it go. And this morning when I had this panic at noon, my time that I thought, oh, no, the meeting is starting and I'm not there. I realized I hadn't thought about a topic. So I said, what's going on in my life right now. And one of the things that is going on in my life right now, and has been part of my life for a while now is, loss and grief. So I thought I'd share some experience, strength and hope, my experience, strength and hope, on that topic.
And I'm gonna be reading, from this Al-Anon book a little bit, it's called Opening Our Hearts, Transforming Our Losses, and it is a book about loss and grief and, how, we can move through them, move into them, with , the tools of Al-Anon recovery. And I will note that this book has very recently been made available as an ebook also. So if that is your preferred mode of reading, go buy it at Amazon or apple or nook or wherever else eBooks are sold.,
So I wanna start with a reading. and this is a reading that I was at a point in my life where I didn't know that I was grieving. And I, for some reason I picked up this book and different parts of this book have spoken to me at different times in my life. But when I opened the book .
There's a section titled the recurring nature of grief. It's right at the beginning of the book, page 14, it says it is often these little changes that catch us by surprise. They seem to come out of nowhere. The day in and day out, disappointments of living with an alcoholic can become commonplace until one day we wake up feeling the effect of all those small losses.
Why, we wonder, do we suddenly feel sad about our situation, especially when we may have spent months or even years living this way. Many of us have lived with the notion that grief is something we feel when we have lost something tangible when someone has died or gone away. In Al-Anon. We learn that though the alcoholic may still be living, he or she isn't able to be fully present emotionally, spiritually, or even physically.
Recognizing that we are not living the lives we had planned or hoped for, with the person we love is a loss that occurs gradually. Each day, we lose a little bit more until what remains is merely a shadow of the person or life we thought we knew. Living with ongoing grief of this kind can be particularly trying.
I'm gonna come back to that reading where I wanted to start actually was this recognition that I had, when I read that passage, that I was grieving the loss of, of something that had been part of my life that had been really important in my life for a long time. and I had recently returned from a conference, for this particular hobby that I was involved in.
And while I was at that conference, I just wasn't getting the enjoyment out of it that, that I used to get, and I didn't understand why not. And I was feeling very restless, irritable, and discontent during the conference. And I came home and I picked up this book a few days later and I read that and recognized that I was no longer as deeply involved in this and that I'd been gradually withdrawing from it for quite a while. And it took this conference where there were, several hundred people, all of whom who were gung-ho about this hobby, and I wasn't anymore, for me to recognize that. And I read this passage in the book about little changes and the tears just welled up in me.
It gave me permission to feel that grief. And I had never thought about grieving the loss of something like that. As it said, grief is like when somebody dies or, when a relationship breaks up that's when you have grief and it's not true. It's not true. It happens for things big and small.
With that, I can go back and recognize the loss of the life that I thought that we were going to have as my loved one, moved more deeply into active alcoholism, the things that we were not able to do, the things that we just weren't doing, the connection that I was losing with this person that I loved deeply. Because I had put up a wall to protect myself, to protect my feelings, but it didn't really protect my feelings. it just hid them away. And one of those feelings was this grief of loss of what I thought would be. What I thought would be in our lives. And it was replaced by feelings of anger, frustration, resentment, despair, fear..
Those were all there in this mess. All mixed up together. And I could flip from one to the other in an instant. Not that I necessarily could have named what I was feeling. The only emotion at that time that I really, I think could name was that I was angry.
If we look at the five stages of grief, which, okay, it's a trope, but there's some truth there. And it starts with denial and moves to anger. and I certainly had denied the problem for a long time, but I was still feeling it. And that anger just welled up in me. But what it really was about a lot of what it was about was losing what I thought I should have.
So grief has been part of my recovery story for a long time, even though I didn't recognize it early on. I just didn't recognize it at all.
I bookmark a reading for that here on page 41. We all have dreams, hopes and plans for the future. One of the devastating effects of living with alcoholism is that our dreams for the future, for the lives we thought we would have go unfulfilled. We may have looked forward to a long and happy life with our spouse or partner only to have that dream shattered.
You know, I was having a long life with my partner, but it was not happy. and I really didn't know what to do. There's another section in here about loss in relationships that I'm not gonna read from, but it has a subsection entitled stay or go. That was where I was. I didn't want to go. But I didn't think I could stay. I didn't think I could live in the chaos. That was our life. There's sort of an anticipation of grief in that place, an anticipation of loss that, I'm gonna have to leave, but I don't wanna leave, but I can't stay here and I don't know what to do.
That was the question in my soul, when I came into this program, 20 years ago, now. I had that question. And, thank God, you people in Al-Anon told me that I didn't have to make a decision if I didn't know what the answer was, that was right for me. And it actually took me about two years to know what my answer was. During which my loved one, continued to drink and continued to spiral downwards. But I realized that I still loved her and that she was still the person that I loved that had just been covered up by this disease. and that Al-Anon had given me the tools that had given me back myself to be able to actually thrive, while that was still happening. And that's a miracle. I love the name of the meeting Monday miracle, because that was… My first miracle was the taking away of my anger. But the second miracle was the one that happened a couple years later when I realized that I could stay.
As I moved through life, other losses came to me. A big one that came to me was the loss of, eventually both my parents to a disease. The disease of dementia.
It started with my mother probably more than 10 years ago. It was more gradual for her. At first I denied that this was happening because didn't want it to happen. But as it became clear that she was affected by this disease, I started to recognize that the actions of a person affected by dementia affected me in much the same way that the actions of a person in active alcoholism affected me.
There were very similar, shall we say, symptoms. The loss of memory, repetition, those sort of things. And I thought I had dealt with that. I thought I had learned how to detach and I had learned how to, live and let live. And what I found was that in this different context, I wasn't ready.
I wasn't able to just say, okay, this is the disease speaking and accept it and not get angry. Not react. For about the last decade, every time we went to visit my parents, I would always include a local Al-Anon meeting in the middle of the visit because, God help me, I needed it. And that's the beauty here is that the tools of this program worked for this new situation of loss, this new situation of a person changing into somebody that I didn't always like, that felt kind of familiar. And as that disease progressed and I lost more and more of the person who was my mother and as my father, started to be affected by his dementia. which was a different kind of dementia, but doesn't really matter. Losing the person that he had been, gradually. there was a lot of long-term grieving as this went on.
And last year, in 2021, I lost both my parents, my father in February, my mother in December. And there's a different sharper grief that goes with that loss.
It wasn't for me overwhelming. And I think part of it was that I had already grieved a lot of the loss of the people that they were. And this was an expected to some extent, and to some extent, a relief, end to their suffering. And gratitude that they were able to both die at home in the company of their family.
And I'm just gonna take a minute here. Because what I have learned is, and I think I have a reading about this, but I don't think I'm gonna try to find it, grief is there. Grief comes and goes. It'll pop up at the most unexpected moment or expected, like right now, when I'm talking about their loss. But at other times when I see something that I would've liked to share with them, oh, my father would love this. Okay. And up it comes. It comes and what I know now from my work in this program, the work of inventory and of letting go of defects and asking for help from a power greater than myself.
What I know is I need to feel that. And when I feel that, when I accept that feeling, then it goes. And sometimes it's there longer. And sometimes it's just a moment, but I know that if I don't let myself feel it, that it's gonna come back, it's gonna sit there and it's gonna fester, and it's gonna come back in a more ugly way. It's gonna come back in anger at something else. It's gonna come back in resentment of something.
So I need to feel it. And along with that, and I think equally important, is learning to live in today. rather than living in the past. And a short reading from the book here again. section titled hope for today.
So much of our recovery in Al-Anon is about striving to live in the present moment. When we can focus on today, we find that our fears about the future and worries about the past no longer dominate our lives as they once did. By learning how to manage this day only we make a commitment to building a better life for ourselves.
So, a couple months ago now, we were able to come together. to have a in person, Memorial for my mother's life. I went to where she had lived, where my brother and sister live, to be there for a couple of weeks, partly to help prepare for that, ceremony and partly to help dig through everything that, that our parents had left behind. As we worked to determine what we want to keep, what we can just throw away. I don't even like to say that, but it's true. They left so much stuff. and what, maybe we'll sell or give away.
And I found in that visit, in that work, an unexpected gift. Going through their piles of papers and going through all of the thousands of photographs that my father had taken over the 90 years of his life. I was able to re know who they were, before their respective diseases took them in charge and took them down. Because, to be honest, I mostly did not like the person, my mother had become. Her disease, led her into anger. a lot of the time. So to be reminded of the 80 years she lived before that disease started turning her into somebody else was a gift. To be reminded of the love that they shared over the 70 years they were together was a gift. To come to know in a way the people that they were before I existed, was a gift.
And yeah, there were moments when I picked up a picture and just, the tears came. Or I picked up a poem that my mother had written to my father on the occasion of their 50 something wedding anniversary. But it was a gift that gave them. In their wholeness back to me. and I would not have wanted to miss that. And if I had to go through some grieving to get there, that's also a gift.
So I think I'm about at the end of my allotted time here, I meant to start a timer. I didn't. But I just wanted to close with the power of acceptance. That the power that acceptance has had in my life over the last years, decades, as I came to recognize that as a tool. That in accepting things, as they are, I can then free myself to find the gratitude, to find the sadness, and to experience the grieving without denying it without shoving it down. Without the anger that I had for so long.
I hope that something that I said may have touched one or two of you. and thank you again for having me here. And I think now it's your turn to share.
Readings and Links
I read from Opening Our Hearts, Transforming Our Losses.
Shannon recommended 2 books:
(Links to Amazon benefit The Recovery Show.)
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