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April 18, 2011

Managing Anniversaries

As Lamar Hankins' poem reminds us, leaving does occur more than once. Sometimes this happens prior to death, as a person goes through progressive stages of an illness that worsens, and their loved ones go through successive stages of grief as the illness progresses.  These are hard times for all, but it is worth noting that when a loved one dies suddenly, the shock of suddenness can take as great a toll as moving through deepening stages of sadness and loss. 

In any loss of a loved one, though, there are leavings that occur after the physical one. One way this happens is through anniversaries. Sneaky, sneaky anniversaries. They come up behind you like a cat and pounce without warning. It is best, I believe, to know about them in advance. 

The "anniversaries" that come after the loss of a loved one can be many and varied.  It is not uncommon immediately after someone dies for us to have bad days on the same day of the week in which they passed on, or on which they were buried.  These anniversaries do not tend to last more than a month to three months, in my experience. But, if you have recently lost a loved one and you notice that on Wednesdays, you cry a lot, feel bad emotionally or physically, and your loved one died on or was buried or cremated on a Wednesday, this is not abnormal.  Make a note of it. And for those first few months, try to under-schedule yourself on those days, and if possible, do not commit to meetings or parties or other activities that require a high degree of socialization.  It can also happen that if someone dies on the 10th of the month, then for the next several months, you may "feel" that anniversary date in some way.

Other anniversaries include "firsts:"  the first birthday, holiday, wedding anniversary, and even the first spring, autumn, summer or winter in the first year after the death of a loved one.

It's good to think about these in advance and try not to have social commitments or major work deadlines on these days. This may be unavoidable, yes, but even in that case, it's good to realize in advance that you may not be at your best and adjust the day's activities in any way you can.

One problem with "event" anniversaries is that they represent days on which we did things, celebrated occasions, went places--were active in some way.  One way to guide our grief through the anniversaries is to do something.  It's a good time to visit a gravesite and place flowers, if you're up for that. A good time to make a memorial contribution in honor of your loved one. A good day to look through old photos and remind yourself of what you had--not only what you have lost. It can also be a good time to phone or email family members or friends who share your loss.

One simple thing I do on anniversaries is this:  I buy a candle that in some way reminds me of my loved one. In the case of my sister, I chose a candle with various shades of blue and turquoise, wrapped with a string that has a turquoise stone hanging from it. At Christmas, I placed a photo of her next to the candle. She always wore a Santa's elf cap on Christmas, so I chose a photo of her "decked out" as the family elf.

When her birthday came along, it was one of those sneaky anniversaries.  I thought about it ahead of time, and yet it pounced on me anyway. I went to lunch with a friend.  I ordered espresso and fried calamari. Somehow, in that moment, it worked.  Then I cried.  We left the restaurant and drove, just drove. By chance, we stopped in a small town much like the one my sister lived in and explored it a while. I called my brother from there, and the most important thing we said to each other was, "I know, I know." At the end of the day, I came home to my beautiful sister's beautiful candle. Lighting it, watching its flame stretch tall and straight through the darkness that surrounded it, I reminded myself that we are all candles--for a while--but we are flames forever.


  1. Love your writing as ALWAYS, Ysabel. I found that I wasn't thinking about my father as much as I was my mom--he passed away in 1988 and I just got to know my mother better until she died in '08. So I started to wear his mezzuza (kind of like a rectangle locket with a Hebrew prayer inside) on my necklace and everyday since I put it on, I touch it and talk to him. Very healing. Another thing I did was invest in a photo scanner and video frame. I uploaded all my parents' old pictures--from their engagement on, along with 4 albums of other family pictures (only 50 more to go! oy). The frame is in the kitchen and as the pictures change, I get to have them "here" with me. Gives me a lot of comfort.

  2. I believe that physical touchstones are so important. I really like the idea of the photos with "motion" that the digital frame can provide. I bought a rose bush last year in honor of my sister, called New Dawn, and it is blooming today, on our grandfather's birthday. These things are important and strengthening. I know your father would be / is proud of his daughter. And your mom, too. As the Song of Songs say, "Love is stronger than death."