How I Stayed Sober Through My Brother's Death

By Olivia Pennelle 10/23/16

Grief hits you like a tsunami. The force with which it strikes is formidable and it just keeps on coming, in tidal waves. Incessant.

The back of someone holding flowers at a grave.
Grief hits you like a tsunami.

Yesterday I buried my brother. He took his life just three weeks ago.

I write this as I am sitting on a plane on my way back from Australia, the return leg of a trip I made just two days ago. I am heartbroken. To me, life in recovery is one of authenticity and truth; and that means that I share all of me in the hope that it might help someone. I want to share my experience of grief, how I have coped, and that, despite being shaken to the core, it has strengthened my resolve and my recovery.

As an adult, I haven’t experienced the grief of losing a family member. I recall the death of my grandparents as a child; whilst I felt sadness and some sense of loss, I was more concerned by my mother’s sorrow. Children are so resilient, and I was able to move on relatively quickly. The grief I experience as an adult is a different beast altogether.

Grief hits you like a tsunami. The force with which it strikes is formidable and it just keeps on coming, in tidal waves. Incessant. I cannot fathom what has happened. I feel like I have lost my mind. Small tasks seem overwhelming. Decisions impossible. And all sense of time and purpose is gone, washed away. It is like walking upstairs for something, getting there and not knowing why. Over and over again.

As I twirl his ring around my thumb and look over at his hat sitting on the seat next to me—mementos I took from his house—tears roll down my face. I feel his loss. This is the end point. I’ve said my goodbyes. I have paid my respects, and I am on my way home. Sadness, guilt, and anger wash over me. I cannot believe he is gone.

I should’ve made more of an effort.

I wish I knew he was feeling this way.

I am a terrible sister.

He was just 42. The funeral had so many attendees that there weren’t enough seats, people stood three or four rows back. This is a guy that was loved, and had touched the lives of many.

How I Have Processed Grief

We all experience grief in different ways, both inwardly and outwardly. This has been my process. These are the steps I have undertaken to cope.

Denial and Shock

I received the news at work. What hit me first was shock. What? I kept on asking. Why? What the hell?! The shock and denial are supposed to mask the initial pain of the terrible news. I felt numb initially, then tears, many tears. I was sent home. As I cycled home, I cried all the way. I furiously tried to call my sponsor and my closest friends. I must have called about five people within half an hour. Instinctively, I knew that I needed to check in with someone in recovery.

The advice I received was to get to a meeting as soon as I could. At a time of uncertain emotions, I needed to ground myself in recovery. This was the time to withdraw from my recovery "bank." I cycled to meet a friend and within a couple of hours attended a meeting. I shared, with my eyes stinging, tears rolling down my face, my body shaking, and my voice quivering at the words coming out of my mouth. I was heard, loved and held. It provided light relief. The reading was about coming home and I knew I was in the right place. The meeting felt like home to me.

To isolate at a time like this is unwise for a person in recovery. I realized my vulnerability and the need to keep people close. I took a couple days off work and broke my day down into the absolute basics: I went to the gym and to meetings. I also made sure I had someone staying with me for the next few nights. I cried and slept. And I prayed. I prayed that I could get through this, and to be held in the love and strength of whatever it was in the universe that has supported me throughout my recovery.

Anger, Guilt and Acceptance

The anger comes in waves, tinged with guilt. But there is an underlying current of acceptance that exists.

I feel so sad that this was a choice he made but realize that I am utterly helpless over that choice. What angers me is the selfishness of suicide. It is a self-centered and inconsiderate choice. But I respect his decision, because it was his decision to make. And we will never know why he made it. To argue with that is futile. I feel strangely blessed with acceptance. I have come to terms with the fact that this has happened and I am completely powerless over it. What is more difficult has been the feelings of guilt that I should’ve made more of an effort, communicated more, cared more, shown my love more, and on and on. I realize the futility of this guilt, but this is something I am having to process. Is this the bargaining? I keep coming back to the acceptance that this was his decision, not mine, and that he is now at peace. That provides some comfort.

As a member of a family, a child, I knew that the best thing I could do was be of service to my family. So I flew to Australia to be there for them and to help with both the practical arrangements and provide the emotional stability that my family needed. I had to be strong for them, in their time of need. I had to be their rock, their sober rock.

My first priority, however, had to be my basic needs. When I landed, I went to a meeting and grounded myself. I had just one day to acclimatize to a seven hour time difference and recover from two flights totaling 24 hours. I took care of the essentials of my well-being: I slept when I could, I made sure I drank water, ate as healthy as possible, checked in with friends daily. In taking care of those needs, I was able to be there for my family. I knew that this was a time when people’s thoughts would be frazzled, tensions high and emotions running riot. I had to keep my calm, and I did. I knew that if I looked after my basic needs, that I could recuperate when I came home.


I was able to visit his home, meet his friends and make peace with his life in Australia. That gave me great comfort. I took some mementos: his hat, a ring and the tag for his dog, Bowie. And then I went to say goodbye formally, at the funeral and wake. I sobbed. We all sobbed. There is something cleansing in crying and paying respects, even though it feels forced. He and his friends loved to party, and so they did. I attended for a few hours and spoke to some of his friends; that was also comforting. I felt somehow closer to him, which I hadn’t been in recent years. But I wasn’t able to stay long, especially around all of that alcohol. I didn’t have a desire to use, but was cognizant of my vulnerability.

Whilst I am acutely aware of my heartbreak, I felt a sense of peace wash over me. Is it closure? Who knows.

And with that, I took the next flight home.

Depression and Moving On

As I sit on the flight home, tears roll down my face. I feel a sense of finality when I board, knowing I’ve left him behind. He’s gone. I’ve done my bit, I’ve said goodbye and I’ve been of service to my family. It’s over now. Back to normality. I feel low, depressed and exhausted. I have flown over 20,000 miles in five days.

I must go back to basics: sleep, eat, meetings and talking. And that is all I can ever do, take care of my basic needs and ground myself in recovery. I am powerless over the rest. People make their own beds, and they lie in them.

One thing that is common in death and mourning is the evaluation of our own mortality. Death brings a sense of finality, a sense that this isn’t a practice run. My brother's passing underlines that the hopes and dreams I have, and the action I am taking to fulfill them, are confirmation of the right moves. I must move forward, I must live with the hope and the knowing, that I very much choose to live.

Goodbye, Al.

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