You have gotten through one year of those “awful firsts.” For example, your first birthday without your loved one being present, or the first Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, your wedding anniversary, or some special day that was unique for both of you. Getting through the first year is hard, and each of these first occasions may bring up the sadness of living without your loved one. After these special days have passed, you may feel that the worst is behind you. But these feelings may continue to arise in future years on special days.
You cannot know what is in store for you during your grief journey. It is different for each of us. After making it through the “year of firsts,” you begin to see and know that you will survive. You made it through the funeral or memorial service, read all the condolence notes, and took a flood of calls. Then the quiet times settled in, when the calls and the notes stop coming, and the visits from well-wishers are fewer and farther apart. You have faced some of the difficult milestones. You have gotten this far with courage and perseverance. Now you may be asking yourself, “Isn’t this enough?”
Unfortunately, grieving does not “turn off” after one year. Time does not erase the past, but it does provide the space to think about your loved one, heal from the loss, and find meaning. Anniversaries and other reminders, although painful at first, do become easier. These important dates can become opportunities to revisit the happy memories that made your loved one special, and to create memorial traditions.
It may be helpful to be prepared for the first anniversary of your loved one’s death.
With the first anniversary of your loved one’s death on the horizon, it may be helpful for you to keep in mind that your grief may return with intensity. There are no hard and fast rules regarding grieving, and not everyone will experience intense grief at the anniversary of the death of a loved one. Yet it may be helpful to be prepared for what grief counselors refer to as “anniversary grief.” The anniversary of the death of your loved one can be a powerful reminder of your loss. It can be a reminder of all those special days that you had with your loved one. It may also bring up memories of unresolved issues or conflicts.
Before, during, and after the first anniversary of your loved one’s death, you and your family and friends may experience a reawakening of the sadness, emptiness, and pain that you experienced when your loved one died. It is not unusual for people to experience behavioral changes for several weeks before and after an anniversary. Withdrawal, angry outbursts, crying spells, overwhelming sadness, lack of attention to detail, loss of interest in school or work activities are fairly common. You may be wondering, “How will I deal with it? If the stress and sadness today is this bad, how horrible will I feel on the actual date?”
You can get through this anniversary, and heal from experiencing it.
Being prepared for the anniversary, and being open to the feelings the event brings, can be a healing opportunity for both you and your family. Here are some suggestions for how to approach the first year anniversary experience:
- Plan for the anniversary. It may be helpful to know that many people find that the anticipation of the anniversary day can be worse than the actual day. As you anticipate the anniversary, you can bring comfort and healing into this day. Plan what you are going to do ahead of time, even if you plan to be alone, and set yourself up for a “good day.” Let your friends and relatives know in advance what your needs are and how they may be able to help.
- You can celebrate the life of your loved one. The first anniversary of the death is a special day for recognizing your loss. You have not only lost the presence of your loved one, but all of their gifts: the laughter, the love, the shared past and qualities you treasured. Perhaps you are asking yourself how you can celebrate the life of your loved one on the death anniversary. One family took balloons to the high school track where their son had competed, and released them, each with a written personal message. One widow picnicked by the lake where she sprinkled her husband’s ashes. Another family had an annual dinner in memory of their daughter. Creating a positive ritual, either alone or shared with others, can give support, healing and meaning to the death anniversary. (Refer to the article, “rituals, a way to heal and honor your loved one,” which suggests further ideas.)
- You can celebrate what you have accomplished together. The death anniversary is also a day for acknowledging the living. This certainly includes you. The last 12 months have been demanding. You have handled your loss in the best way you could in order to survive. Take time to acknowledge the hard journey you’ve been on. Then look ahead to the new life you are creating for yourself. Do something special for yourself – perhaps schedule a massage, a special dinner or a trip to a nurturing place.
- Handle your memories with care. You can choose which parts of the life you shared that you wish to keep, and which parts you want to leave behind. The happiness you experienced with your loved one belongs to you forever. Hold on to those rich memories, and give thanks for the life of the person you’ve lost. It may be easier to cope with memories you consciously choose to keep, rather than to have them emerge when you are not prepared to cope with them. Perhaps you may decide to create a special place to honor your treasured memories, using photos, mementos and a candle. Journaling your memories will also help you in the healing process.
- Letting go doesn’t mean forgetting. Letting go of what used to be is not being disloyal, and it does not mean you have forgotten your loved one. A part of that person will remain within you always. Letting go means leaving behind the sorrow and pain of grief and choosing to go on. It means you can take with you only those memories and experiences that enhance your ability to grow and expand your capacity for happiness.
- Plan for special support. It may be helpful to join a support group before and after the death anniversary of your loved one. Your local hospice will have support groups that you are welcome to join. Also, if you are accustomed to the Internet, there are special support groups suited to your exact needs.
You may feel that you will never be finished with grief after the loss of your loved one. Feelings of grief may resurface during many special days for the rest of your life. Each time you will face your sadness on new terms, but may notice that it doesn’t seem as intense or difficult. Hopefully, you will be able to affirm how much you have grown and healed in the ongoing journey of your grief.
Adapted from: “The Anniversary Dilemma” by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, “A Year Is a Relative Thing” by Ellen Zinner, “What to Expect At the First Anniversary of Loss” by Corinne O’Flynn, “Marking Holidays and Anniversaries” by American Hospice Foundation, and “Anniversary
Provided by Gerard’s House, a grief support center for children, teenagers and their families in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For more information please contact us at (505) 424-1800 or gerardshouse.org.
This article was published in “The Grieving Heart,” written and edited by Bob Dorsett, LLC, www.silentseas.net