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April 14, 2014

Anniversary Fever

I've written posts related to this subject before (see below), but recent experience has returned me to the topic of  "Anniversary Fever," of how and when our bodies grieve. I've found this pattern to be most clear in the first one to two years after we lose a loved one. Sometimes, you find yourself feeling unwell on the monthly anniversaries of a death, funeral, event. Other times, it's the year-long mark or the birthday of someone who no longer celebrates that birthday here with us. I used to think that, after some certain period of time, the body would no longer experience these glitches. I was wrong.

The son of one of my lifelong friends died 12 years ago. Although we lived in separate countries at the time and neither of us knew what was occurring in each other's lives, her son's funeral occurred the same day that I left my home and experienced a loss so strange and painful that it simply cannot be brought into a public sphere.

Six months after those losses, my friend and I reconnected. We make it a point to discuss "the date," now, even 12 years later. On March 26 of this year, she went to the cemetery to place flowers at her son's grave and clean the grounds around it. She went to the cemetery feeling fine, and half an hour later, she didn't. The next day she had a full-blown sinus infection.  On the anniversary of her son's death, her husband experienced a knee problem "out of the blue," with nothing to be found as a "cause." On March 26, I awoke in the middle of the night with sharp, shooting pains in my legs and severe muscle spasms in most of my body. There was no physical reason for the midnight spasms. Also no reason for them to cause me worry. The date was reason enough for all of it.

I cannot explain this. I can only affirm that the body has its unique way of working through grief. Some of the grief recovery literature points to the lungs as an organ that stores grief, and I have indeed seen that many people suffer respiratory infections more frequently during the first year after a loss. But this is just one anecdote among many. Anniversaries may bring tears, illness, discomfort, nostalgia...but the one thing they are is insistent, as though the physical body is saying, "Let me have my say. Let me work through this grief, one more time, and one more time again." 

These anniversary reactions appear inconvenient, counter-intuitive and counter-productive. I have learned that, despite the passing of time, there are simply some anniversary dates when I know it is unwise to schedule an important meeting or take a trip. Even if symptoms don't appear, my energy level is likely to be considerably lower than normal. I used to think that by being aware of the date in advance, I could avoid a physical response to the anniversary, and perhaps, in some instances, I have. Or perhaps, I have made that physical response easier to manage.

You have likely heard any number of things about Tantra in the media. It has some points, though, that have nothing to do with any celebrity's sex life and everything to do with real life. One of these is the doctrine that "the body is a vehicle of truth." Again, I don't completely understand this, but I see the doctrine at work all the time. And I certainly see it in grief-related anniversaries.

I encourage everyone to be conscious of these anniversaries. I believe they are some kind of crossing-point or rite of passage that, in spite of the temporary pain they cause, are vital to our "getting along with grief." Perhaps they are as mysterious as death itself. Perhaps I will never fully understand why anniversary "symptoms" occur or what purpose they serve. For now, I can simply say that I choose to be conscious of them, that I prefer consciousness to lack thereof, and that I choose to see them as progress and a sign of my own wholeness...a sign that all of me lives all of my life. It occurs to me that I can use that consciousness in some way, choosing to remember that loved one, choosing to share memories of them with others, sending a memorial donation in their name to a favorite cause. These, among others, are "symptoms" I can choose and celebrate, even as my body works to release a yet-dissonant chord from my life's score.

For earlier posts on this topic, see:
Managing Anniversaries
Building on the Changes
So Many Seasons in One Month

April 10, 2014

Mom and Mother's Day: Call for Submissions

Risking the sin of obviousness, I am issuing a call for submissions about moms and grandmothers, as Mother's Day approaches. Tributes, poem, photos, essays are all invited. What did your mother and/or grandmother teach you that has stayed with you?

My grandmother taught me a lot. One of eight children, by the time she reached her forties, she was the only surviving member of her family. She never spoke to me about any personal grief. She did, though, share some instructive phrases with me that I think came from her own grief experiences.

One night when I faced a great loss, I spoke to my grandmother on the phone, and she said, "You know, honey, sometimes it's just better not to think."

At the time, I thought her words were simply cute and endearing. Time passed, a time during which I also faced the loss of my grandmother. I cannot begin to count the number of times her phrase has revisited my mind and helped me through a tough moment. "Sometimes it's just better not to think."

What did your mother or grandmother make better for you, lead you to think about? Submissions on this theme are open through May 15. See guidelines at right for instructions.