Facing Bereavement in Recovery
Facing Bereavement in Recovery
Chula Goonewardene writes about the unparalleled pain of losing his father within the context of his own recovery
In early February 2015, my Father passed away, quite unexpectedly, and the emotional pain I have felt is like nothing else I have ever felt before.
I spent many years of active addiction being numb to my feelings, getting clean was like having my skin peeled off in a bath of salt.
Recovery has been a rediscovery of what it truly feels like to be human and face life on life’s terms. I remember hearing people share about staying clean through the emotional turbulence of bereavement and I remember in my early days thinking; ‘if that happened to me I’d surely relapse’, but thankfully, it doesn’t feel like an option today.
My surprise at this has caused me to wonder why it is that the compulsion to use has not come to me at this difficult time and what exactly caused this constantly nagging craving to disappear from the moment I started working a programme of recovery. I am aware that this is not everybody’s experience, but it is mine, and it is the same for many of those in the fellowship that I know.
I was lucky enough to kick-start my recovery with a stay in 12-Step treatment and it is here that I laid the foundations of the last eleven-and-a-half years of my life of total abstinence. I learned that honesty, open-mindedness and willingness would guide me in the right direction, I learned that taking the courage to ‘trust, risk and share’ in a therapeutic environment would bring healing, and most importantly; I learned that I had the ‘dis-ease’ of addiction, that I wasn’t morally deficient, and that I could arrest my illness to find freedom, if I followed at least some of the suggestions on offer, and didn’t pick up another drink or drug.
So this is what I did, and life began to happen.
I started feeling my emotions; the good, the bad, and the ugly, and I used the tools at my disposal to process what came up for me.
My programme became a reality-filter for every experience, chastening my tendency for negative projection and self-pity. The fellowships gave me a safe space to share my vulnerabilities, a sense of positive identity, provided a secure attachment, and immediate access to the wisdom of those in successful, long-term recovery. The therapeutic work that took place gave me great insight into myself, in a way that I had never managed to achieve through any other medium, and this raising of self-awareness led to me seeking 1:1 therapy, at two years clean, to work on my deeper underlying issues. A true acceptance of my condition, and the necessities involved in maintaining my recovery, followed accordingly, and as my personal life developed, so my professional career blossomed, bringing me in a decade, to where I am today; a qualified and experienced treatment manager and BACP registered therapist.
I am so pleased that my Father was able to witness this incline, after having to endure my spiralling decline into heroin addiction, and we have parted ways with only good feelings between us, which would not have been the case, had he died twelve years ago. I owed him countless amends, for incredibly selfish and down-right nasty behaviour, during my severely blinkered quests for the next fix, and it is thanks to my programme of recovery, that we had managed to find resolution in our relationship, and precious emotional intimacy between us.
I remember feeling extremely guilty about the way I had treated him, as soon as my detox had finished it came flooding in, and I apologised profusely when he came to visit me in rehab, only to learn that I was actually being driven by an unconscious desire to relieve my own conscience, and that true amends meant actions, not words, motivated by a sincere desire to not repeat old, destructive, patterns of behaviour. It was suggested that I wait until Step 9 to do this, and again, I am so grateful for this teaching, for when I eventually came to this point some years later, I had an absolutely thorough understanding of what I was expressing and the personal responsibility that I held, to ensure there was substance to my words.
This self-awareness has extended to the present moment, and whilst I work with people unconsciously acting out on their grief, by becoming overly controlling, retreating into silence, or voicing stoic pragmatism for example, I consider myself so very fortunate to be able to observe my own process with some clarity. The years of working a programme, engaging with therapy, and training as a therapist, have armed me with the ability to recognise that my rage-full intolerance is just a displacement of my over-whelming loss, not the reality of my interactions, and this helps me to remain compassionate with those around me, without suppressing the intensity of my grief or converting it into something else.
During the last week of his life, my Father starting making comments like; ‘I think this could be the end of my time’, and as he wasn’t suffering from anything terminal, or so we thought at the time, we attempted to bolster his spirit with replies such as; ‘Don’t be silly, you’re going to be fine, you’ll be home soon, don’t worry’. I took this to therapy to explore my process, as I do with most of the significant events in my everyday life, and again discovered that my responses were more to do with how I felt, than truly considering what might be going on for him. My therapist suggested that maybe he needed a space to talk about it, and so on my next visit to see him in hospital, I waited for the appropriate moment to ask him how he felt about dying.
Being the Buddhist scholar that he was, he clearly stated; ‘This is Dukkha, death is as much a part of life as birth, and I must peacefully accept this’, but being the therapist that I am, I gently challenged him; ‘I acknowledge the Buddhist perspective, but having lived a worldly life of attachment, adopting this approach can sometimes result in an emotional bypass of sorts, what are the feelings you have underneath your intellectual understanding?’. To which he replied; ‘I am sad, I am sad to leave you all’, and we held that feeling together, for what felt like hours but was literally only minutes, a moment of absolute truth between father and son, beautiful and pristine.
Would this level of communication have occurred had I not been in recovery? I doubt very much it would. I know how lucky I am. I know this isn’t everyone’s story, but working a programme has been the catalyst for so many blessings in my life. The quiet passion of the counsellors I met in treatment inspired my desire to follow their path, the self-discovery in each step informed my knowledge of human process, which in turn has found connection to the theories I have learnt in training, and the fellowship has given me a safe place to express my pain, without fear of judgement, and kept me safe in my bereavement.
I strongly believe that not only are the 12-Step programmes perfectly designed for sustainable recovery from addiction, but they can also be utilised as programmes for life. They have the flexibility to support all persuasions, the availability to reach all social classes, and the structure to hold us through most of the challenges that life may throw at us, and if not, they will often then point us in the right direction to get the support we need.
My personal experience has been that; providing the roots are plentiful and deeply embedded, then the trunk will grow secure, and as long as we water with care, prune when necessary and allow adequate space for growth, then the leaves will shine and the flowers will bloom, no matter what the storm we must walk through.