5 Ways to Process the Death of a Friend in 12-Step Recovery

By John Lavitt 10/01/19

Dealing with the death of a close friend in sobriety can be tough. But if you follow some simple guidelines and take it slow, you can transform a painful trial into a caring tribute that honors their memory.

Image: 
someone being consoled by another, view from behind.
We can celebrate the positive while we grieve the loss. Photo by Toimetaja tõlkebüroo on Unsplash

When a friend in a 12-step fellowship dies, processing the loss can be challenging, even if the person was sick with a chronic disease or naturally nearing the end of life. The idea that someone might die is very different from the reality of that person dying and being forever gone. 

Because of the way we share in 12-step groups, we quickly become intimately acquainted with our fellow meeting-goers. We also see our peers regularly—weekly or more frequently—often over years, sometimes decades, in the same rooms and homes and restaurants. The resulting relationship is uniquely strong and meaningful. So when a loss occurs, whether you are working a program or just on the outskirts of meetings, it can be tough to get through. However, if you follow some simple guidelines and take it slow, you can transform a painful trial into a caring tribute that honors their memory. 

Recently, I lost a sober friend in a 12-step fellowship. Although we rarely saw each other outside of the meetings, there was a close connection between us. His smile helped me overcome a feeling of alienation after I’d moved to a new neighborhood and started to attend new meetings. He made me feel welcome. As a person with the disease of alcoholism or addiction or whatever you want to call that sense of being “other” and “less than” that bubbles up from within, I resisted, especially then, acceptance and comfort when it was offered to me. My new sober friend, a senior citizen in his 70s, helped me overcome this insecurity and feel “part of” a meeting that eventually became my beloved home group. 

Not that long ago, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. At least, it seems not that long ago. When it happened, I immediately knew something was wrong. Although his smile remained bright, his health and strength were taken from him. He fought a courageous battle for well over a year. 

My friend was loved by many, and after he passed, we had to figure out a way to process his death. The guidelines below, which focus on maintaining decency and decorum and avoiding added hurt and unnecessary damage, helped us grieve. (Although these suggestions may be helpful in general, they are specifically meant to be considered within a 12-step context.)

1) Respect the Spiritual Principle of Anonymity

The 12th Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous states: "Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities." The majority of 12-step fellowships have adopted this tradition. In the digital age of mobile technologies and the internet, anonymity needs to be respected beyond the original boundaries of “press, radio, and films.” 

Although many people, including myself, are quite open about sobriety on social media, others are strict about maintaining anonymity. When a sober friend dies, you may be tempted to post a tribute on their Facebook page, letting the world know that they died sober. Resist the temptation. By taking such an action, you could be violating their anonymity, and revealing something to family or co-workers that they would prefer to have kept anonymous. Also, don’t automatically assume you know all the details, which brings us to number 2.

2) Never Presuppose a Relapse or Speculate on Causality

Sadly, people in recovery sometimes return to drug and alcohol use, and sometimes it results in death. Although this was not the case with my friend, I have seen too many people overdose and die or develop fatal diseases because of excessive drinking. However, when a sober friend dies, until you know for sure from a medical report or similar legitimate source, you shouldn’t speculate on whether or not they relapsed. Such speculation is nothing more than gossip, even if you don’t intend it to be. As Aesop wrote in a fable and Thumper later adopted as his motto, "If you can't say anything nice, then don't say anything at all." 

Even if someone did die as a result of a relapse, do not act like the “wise” sage. It's not your job to use that knowledge to warn others. Such an attitude raises you above the emotional reality and places your sobriety on a pedestal. And imagine if you are wrong. Then, not only have you damaged a sober friend's legacy, you have hurt yourself by telling such a story. In these cases, better safe and kind than sorry and foolish. As a member of a 12-step fellowship, I don’t want to point fingers or take other people's inventories. I don’t want judgment to consume my capacity for love and empathy. 

Instead, focus on the good: What was special about your friend?

3) Be Cautious and Respectful When Speaking to the Family

If you meet a sober friend's family at a memorial service or funeral organized by them, make sure ahead of time that it's okay to discuss your friend’s sobriety. Many people remain anonymous even within their own families. They also have friends and co-workers who know nothing about what happened in the past. 

It's not your job to enlighten everyone about what a great speaker or sponsor your friend was. You will likely end up creating confusion and uncertainty. And if your friend did not disclose his or her participation in a 12-step program, you could be adding to the family’s already-heavy emotional burden. 

If you believe the family may not be aware of a sober friend's 12-step participation, then come up with a story about how you knew each other. Maybe a book club, a favorite activity, or a past introduction through mutual friends. 

It's easy to take the focus off of you by talking positively about your friend. You can tell people what a good person he or she was and how much you enjoyed their sense of humor. With my friend who died recently, his family knew about his sobriety and celebrated it. At the same time, people who knew him from 12-step fellowships talked about his business acumen, his lovely smile, and his joking personality. It was not hard to find topics to discuss that were outside of the 12-step context. 

4) Set Up a Separate Memorial for the 12-Step Fellowship to Mourn and Celebrate a Sober Friend

Although it makes sense to attend the family's funeral or memorial service to show your support by being present, it's a good idea to set up a separate memorial service as well. This second service can focus on your sober friend's 12-step community. Often there will be a meeting before this kind of memorial service. Then, in the service, people will openly talk about the person’s role in the fellowship, and what gifts he or she brought to the program. The meeting and the service should both be open so that anyone can attend. When you publicize this event, be careful not to use social media in such a way that violates anonymity. In most cases, word-of-mouth at meetings and personal one-on-one communications should be enough to raise awareness. 

5) Celebrate the Positive and Maintain a Loving Legacy

Once a sober friend is gone, the best way to process that loss is to celebrate the positive. Rather than focusing on the loss, talk about what that person gave to others and their memorable qualities. My sober friend always made a point to offer a seat next to him to newcomers. He made everyone feel welcome. Today, I do my best to maintain that loving legacy by doing what he did. I keep his smile and his love alive by going outside of my comfort zone, following his example, and acting as he did. 

As alcoholics and addicts in 12-step fellowships, we are vulnerable to our character defects, and sometimes end up relapsing as a result of them. The process of getting sober is about progress and not perfection, and we make mistakes and fall back into deeply entrenched negative patterns of behavior. The death of a sober friend reminds us of the real, lasting value of our sobriety. We can celebrate the positive while we grieve the loss. We recommit not only to our recovery, but also to practicing the principles that reflect the best qualities of our departed friend. 

In Memory of Lenny Levy

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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