What To Do On The Anniversary Of A Death: 10 Tips To Help You Get Through The Most Horrible Day Of The Year
What To Do On The Anniversary Of A Death
The other day I was driving in our car with my family, and the handsfree system pinged and displayed a notification: “Incoming text from: mom.” For about three seconds, my brain thought my mom had sent me a message. Then I burst into tears because I realized that was impossible, that my husband’s phone was connected, not mine (I usually drive that car). It’s been three years since my mom died, and while those moments of sudden anguish are fewer and farther between, I am still grieving.
Today is the third anniversary of her death, and as part of my self-assigned therapy, I’m writing to share some tips that have helped me face this most horrible time of the year, three times now. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but since her loss is still relatively fresh, I remember the first year. The first anniversary of my mom’s death was one of the worst days of my life, even harder I think than the day she died because my brain had already had a full year to grate against the irrefutable fact of her absence. But three years in, I have a little more composure and distance than in those early days. I thought this would be a good time to share what I’ve experienced. I hope that if you are facing an anniversary or supporting someone else who is, these ideas will help you think about what you can do to get through it.
1. Make (flexible) plans.
Your first instinct might be to avoid thinking about that date looming on the calendar as much as possible, but making no plans is likely to result in running for the easiest (temporary) solution when the tidal wave eventually hits. For some this may be a long run or therapeutic meditation, but for a lot of us (me) it might look more like picking fights with people I love in order to divert the bad feelings, drinking extra glasses of wine, skipping workouts, or binging on snacks that make my stomach hurt. Giving some thought to plans you could make (but easily break if you realize on the day won’t best serve you) can be helpful. If you’re able to take the day off work or childcare or other responsibilities that require your energy and attention, even better. Coffee with an understanding friend, transferrable tickets to a movie or comedy show, even researching a new hike you could take or garden you can visit can add relief by giving structure to your day.
2. Engage your senses and let yourself feel it.
There's the pain of losing someone you love, and then there's the added pain of trying/wanting to avoid feeling the loss. Grief is exhausting, it's embarrassing, it's inconvenient. But you have to feel it at some point if you want to be able to remember the person and feel joy instead of sadness. So today (maybe not the whole day, but some finite part of it) give yourself time and space to look at photos, listen to music, eat/drink/smell things that remind you of the person you lost. Let it wash over you.
The more times you do that, the more likely it will be that when you see/hear/taste/smell that thing again, you’ll be able to remember what you shared without the loud, raw feelings of sadness drowning out the joy and peace contained in those memories. In her poem, “mothers”, Nikki Giovani says, “we must learn to bear the pleasures as we have borne the pains." It expresses perfectly the long-term character of my grief - the best days are also the hardest days because I wish I could share them with her. So being able to enjoy a raspberry on a regular Tuesday because I’ve cried with my mouth full of them enough times before helps me bear the pleasures of birthdays and firsts and holidays as they roll out of the future and into my here and now.
3. Write them a letter.
I felt annoyed when this was suggested to me, but then I tried it. Now I write letters to my mom on the anniversary, on her birthday, on mine. Part of what we miss when we lose someone is their input, and I definitely miss that. But we also miss the person we became in their presence. Writing to my mom lets me be the version of myself that I was when she was here to support me, and I end up feeling, well, supported after I write to her.
4. Give yourself a break.
While it’s important to process, you can’t spend the whole day feeling terrible. After you’ve done your sad work, do something to take your mind off the heavy absence their death created. Do something that you enjoy (I like drawing outside or watching dumb rom-com movies) that will take your mind of things and give you a chance to rest.
5. Tell stories.
When someone dies, people come together (unless a pandemic has made gathering hard, which must be so much worse, and I’m sorry if this happened to you). It feels good to know that others loved the person you loved. But then they go home, and move on with their lives, and it feels so bad when the world moves on without the person you cared about. We do a family zoom call on the anniversary of my mom’s death and while there’s really no way that zoom can not be awkward, it always makes me feel better to connect and know that mom’s memory is alive and well in the heads and hearts of other people.
One of the worst parts of losing my mom is the relationship my kids aren’t able to have with her. As they get older, I am making an effort to tell them stories about her, show them pictures and talk about how she shaped me (and them in turn).
6. Follow their lead.
I’m grateful for so much my mom taught me, and some of her best lessons help me get through my worst days. A commitment to daily morning exercise is a legacy that I am grateful to be carrying on, because you don’t want to cross paths with me on a day like today if I haven’t done a little crying on the treadmill first.
7. Break their rules.
As good as it can feel to invite the imagined approval of someone whose good opinion you have sought in your life by doing things you know they’d have wanted you to do, it is also true that having someone die can free you to do things they wouldn’t. It might feel terrible to you to have that thought, especially if you are in the early days. But part of making peace with my new reality without my mom has been learning to appreciate all the ways that I can be me without fear of her judgment. I can choose not to cut my kids’ hair, or mine. I can occasionally go grocery shopping without a list, or open a new jar of jam without finishing the open one (or three) in my fridge. Particularly if you had a complicated relationship with the person you lost, maybe today is a day to embrace a little therapeutic defiance. You may not be able to silence their voice in your head, but you can work on having a different reaction to it when you hear it.
8. Reach out to someone going through the same thing.
Grieving the loss of a close family member or friend is one of the things in life you really can’t understand unless you’ve been through it. I saw a lot of people go through it before I did, and I wish I could go back and support them differently than I did at the time. So now when I see someone grieving, it makes me feel good to reach out and try to offer them some comfort when I can. Hearing from someone you don’t know very well can be surprisingly wonderful, because it helps push against the isolation created when you feel like the world has forgotten about you and the person you lost.
9. Get silly.
You know what they say about laughter. My mom loved karaoke so one year I bought a bluetooth microphone to sing with my kids. Watching stand-up specials on Netflix has also been a great diversion from the dreary drearies.
10. Invest time in the people you still have in your life.
I think it's a pretty universal response to losing someone that it makes you realize how much you value the people in your life. My mom definitely didn’t lie on her deathbed and express regrets about the time she spent with her family and friends. When you have a choice between work, money, prestige or any of the other things we covet and spending time with the people you love, get in that car or that plane, make those plans and sit down at those tables because you never know how much time you have.
I hope this has been helpful. If you are grieving the loss of someone you loved, I hope this will help you feel less alone and more equipped to face the difficult milestones in your grief.