Recently I’ve met a few people who are within the first year of their bereavement, which means the first anniversary of their loved one’s death is approaching. I write this post for them and any others who are facing the same.
I really don’t remember the first anniversary of my son Pax’s death, and I’m not sure how I marked the day. It is 36 years ago.
I don’t remember Catherine’s either. It is only 8 years ago – exactly – since she died. I am sure we went to the grave. I am sure I brought lots of flowers – lilies – which were her favourites. And I am sure I wept. And wept. – That’s probably why I can’t remember it so clearly, as it was such an extremely emotional day.
Since then, I have found different ways to cope with my children’s anniversaries. Sometimes I will do a long walk, perhaps finishing up at the grave. One time I arranged for a few friends to come with John and I to the grave and we had a little mini-memorial service. Sometimes we have gone somewhere that was special to Catherine (Pax’s special places are not in the UK), such as a specific garden centre where we shared a coffee on her last visit.
Of course, it’s not just the day of the anniversary that is heart-breaking – the days (weeks) leading up to it are difficult too, as I relive aspects of the ‘journey’. The last visit. The last conversations. And so on. Sometimes the lead up can be even more emotional than the day itself.
Anniversaries will always be difficult and significant days as we go through life without the one(s) we love by our side, though I do think that the intensity of the experience changes as the years go by.
Here are some thoughts on getting through the anniversary of a loved one’s death
- Plan ahead. As much as you might wish to avoid the day, it will arrive. It can be better to have some idea in advance of how you want to pass the time. Do you want to be alone? Or would you like to be with friends and/or family, at least for some of the day? Do you want to mark the day in a special way, or do you want to carry on as usual? Do you want to visit the grave or a special location?
- There are no ‘rules’ in grief – you can commemorate this day in the ways that feel right to you and that conform with your wishes and beliefs. The first anniversary is the date for many people when a headstone is erected at the cemetery, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be a time of scattering ashes, if you haven’t already, but it doesn’t have to be.
- Allow yourself time to grieve. Whether you plan to fill the day with special activities or whether you plan to do something completely different, do make space in the day to grieve. Take some comfort in remembering the happy moments you shared together with your loved one. Celebrate their life.
- If your faith is a comfort, you might like to visit a church or other place of worship, whether or not there is a service taking place. Many churches have small chapels for prayer and the possibility to light a candle. Bringing your loved one’s memory into this place can be quite significant.
- You might like to find practical ways of celebrating the memory of your loved one. For instance, a gift to charity in their name. It might be possible to start a project and time it to be completed by the anniversary, such as arranging for a bench or a plaque to be put up somewhere. Planting a bush or tree in your garden can also be meaningful, or doing a painting or other craft project.
- If you are going through particularly difficult moments, if you are overwhelmed and feel unable to cope, seek for help. A friend or family member may be able to offer a listening ear. Otherwise, there are a variety of helplines that you could call. Talking to a ‘stranger’ might not be your preference, but sometimes just having anyone who will listen can be a help.
- Avoid trying to drown your sorrows in drink or other substances. Besides being unhealthy physically, your emotions could be made worse.
- Brace yourself for the reality that not all friends and family might remember and/or acknowledge this date. Whilst our own grief at the death of our loved one makes this time of the year so significant for us and fills our thoughts, this might be not the case for other people. It is likely we have already observed how their lives carried on virtually unchanged whilst ours is now forever different. The same may be true at the time of the anniversary. If we want to be sure that people will acknowledge this date, we may have to bring it to their attention. On the other hand, some people might well know the date but decide it would be better not to mention it ‘lest they upset us by reminding us’ – as though they would remember and we wouldn’t! Again, it might be up to us to bring it up in conversation.
- Be kind to yourself. There is no wrong or right way to grieve. Consider what you can cope with and don’t plan something that is beyond your abilities, whether practically or emotionally. You don’t have to fulfil every expectation you have of yourself. Try to finish the day with a comforting activity, so that you move out of the ‘grieving space’ to a more hopeful space. There’s nothing the matter with a little drink or a nice meal, if that’s something you enjoy.
For further ideas, here is a leaflet produced by The Compassionate Friends that you can download for free. Although written for parents, it can apply to anyone who is grieving.
I wish you love, strength and comfort as you remember your loved one.
They are not dead,
Who leave us this great heritage of remembering joy.
They still live in our hearts,
In the happiness we knew,
in the dreams we shared.
They still breathe,
In the lingering fragrance, windblown,
from their favourite flowers.
They still smile in the moonlight’s silver,
And laugh in the sunlight’s sparkling gold.
They still speak in the echoes of the words
we’ve heard them say again and again.
They still move,
In the rhythm of waving grasses,
in the dance of the tossing branches.
They are not dead;
Their memory is warm in our hearts,
comfort in our sorrow.
They are not apart from us,
but part of us,
For love is eternal,
And those we love shall be with us
throughout all eternity.