I loved someone deeply. When she passed away, I drank excessively. My grief-logic was simple. She drank vodka. We drank vodka together. She’s dead. I’m not. She’s gone. Vodka’s not. The act of drinking vodka became entangled in a trippy continuum that made me feel connected to her. In my head, I could drink all the vodka I wanted because it was in her name – and God how I missed her name in my mouth. But after awhile, questions bubbled up – Am I actually drinking to honor her or am I just drinking because losing her hurt so much? Most of the time the answer wasn’t clear. But at some point, I knew the way I was drinking was not what I wanted and not what she would’ve wanted. And so, I began the difficult process of searching for other ways to move through, or more accurately, with this mourning.
What else is there?
The first thing I had to do was remember that alcohol was not the only thing connecting us. Truthfully, it wasn’t even very central to our friendship. I pushed myself to remember all the other things we shared in. Sitting with these memories was painful, but important. Whenever missing her became visceral, I tried to replace drinking alcohol with those other things we shared like reading letters we had exchanged or watching a movie she loved. It was so much easier to drink than to do that. However, over time, that choice became easier bit by bit.
Now when I, or someone I care about, is grieving – specifically grieving with substances associated with the person who has died, after some time has passed, I gently put the questions in to the air – What else did s/he love? What else did you share with each other? What other ways are there to feel connected?
Make-Shift Rituals: Do libations lose efficacy when mixed with spit and marrow?
My family is Jamaican. When people die, there are things we do. There are ceremonies involving white rum and stewed meats and fists full of salt. I’ve participated in so many of these practices…but as it turns out, I never really retained any of the details. And so I found myself carrying this sprawling grief in the center of my chest – completely at a loss. I didn’t know what to do with it or my hands or my breath or my tears or my days. There were no aunties telling me to go cover the upstairs windows or to go fetch a broom so we could coax spirits out of the house.
In that vacuum, I ended up making up my own rituals – involving candles and photos and red lipstick. They also involved alcohol. I would pour liquor out in places I thought she would have thought were pretty. I still do this, but back then, I was drinking more than I was pouring. Again questions popped up – are these actual libations or are they just shots I splash around sometimes? Does this feel right?
I remember calling my grandma and asking her how she grieved. I listened. Most of it wasn’t for me, but I did tweak my own make-shift rituals to involve less drinking and more poems. I kept changing them until they felt (more) right. Grief is so expansive and so demanding. Finding, forging, and crafting intentional practices that actually resonate are critical when mourning. Without them, it’s so easy to slip into more harmful ways of coping.
More Radical Reads: Good Grief: Balancing Radical Self Love & Mourning
Grief and Isolation
I was living in Wisconsin when I got the call that she died. She and I had lived together in this brightly colored basement apartment in Pittsburgh. I moved here and five months later she was dead. No one here knew her. I collapsed in on myself. I rejected company. I ignored texts. I declined invitations. I convinced myself no one would understand. I became almost protective of my grief. This grief was mine and mine alone.
A part of that is true. A part of that is always true. Mourning can sometimes be shared, but is ultimately so personal. The lesson I learned was that folks don’t always have to be holding your exact grief in order to help support you through it. When I began to open up to other people’s company and care, I drank less. The pain was still present and constant, but being around other people allowed me to carry it differently (specifically with less vodka). I learned that so much of mourning has to be moved through alone – but not all of it.
How do we survive?
It’s been years, I’ve mourned many others since her. And there are some days I wake up and I still have to gently remind myself she’s gone. It’s taught me to pay attention to how I practice survival on a regular basis. Do I know how to comfort myself? What are my usual coping strategies? Are they working for me? Losing someone you love is devastating, yet inevitable in a way. And life circumstances don’t always give us the space we need to chose the “most ideal” strategies (and for a whole lot of folk it rarely does). Learning how to care for ourselves – in and out of mournings – feels so critical to all parts of our well-being.
*Folks’ relationship with substance use and sobriety varies widely. I write here from my personal experience/s and frameworks. There are points when I articulate things like, I shifted my mindset, and my drinking habits shifted with it. I know that choice isn’t available for everyone. Additionally, loss and trauma can trigger really intense relapses for folk. In those instances, moving through that can look really different. I just hope for everyone to have access to the support they need.
Feature Image: Brown skin individual with twists in hair sits on a couch indoors in front of a window reading a book. Flickr.com