Every February 12, my family and I eat pink donuts with pink candles and we sing Happy Birthday. We aren’t just celebrating any “normal” holiday or birthday though; this is how we have chosen to honor and celebrate the loss of our only daughter and my boys’ only little sister, Selah Eleanor. Specifically, this is the day my sweet Selah came out of me and settled right into heaven. My youngest often asks what it looks like in heaven, and my oldest likes to talk about what he might teach her if she were still with us. (He thinks she would be a “sporty girl” and like playing outdoors like him.) This day is always bittersweet to me. It makes me terribly sad and my heart aches for her more poignantly on this day, but it also makes me happy and proud to honor and remember her, while simultaneously encouraging both my own and my family’s healing process.
Another anniversary I honor is June 27, the day my mom was killed in a car accident. Unfortunately it took me too many years to realize that trying to ignore the day and forget what happened was not proving to be healing or helpful to my journey. I now use the day to honor her memory by doing something she loved. Whether it’s going on a long bike ride, heading out to a lake for some kayaking, or just eating her favorite ice cream from Baskin Robbins, this once shared activity helps me feel more connected to her.
Unfortunately, many who are reading this have a similar day (or days) that are burnt into their minds as the “before/after” moments of their lives. These days, known as grief anniversaries, are significant dates in the timeline of your relationship with grief. It’s a birthday, a death anniversary, a wedding date, or another day of personal significance that ties you to the loved one you have lost. This day comes around every year—a perpetual, involuntary holiday where your heart is reminded of all that is missing. These days can cause all sorts of emotion—dread as you see it creeping up on the calendar, fatigue over carrying the heavy emotional toll, or profound sadness as you realize another year has passed. These days mark the milestones of a different type of relationship, a type where this person is no longer living. And while your heart is heavy, everything else around you can seemingly remain the same.
Though these days may cause reactions in our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls, it is important to remember that all of these responses are quite usual and can even be healing. They are signs of how significantly this loss has affected your life. Plan a time to reflect on the changes that have occurred since the last year and how you may have grown or would still like to grow. While the intensity of these types of days may not go away, it is possible to cope with your feelings and deal with grief anniversaries effectively.
One such way can be sharing both your memories and your current feelings with other loved ones in your life. If read my first article (https://www.nofoottoosmall.org/get_involved/grief-support/grief.html), you’ll remember that suppressing your grief will only cause it to eventually rear its ugly head. By sharing with my own circle and learning from others around me, I have been able to find a tradition that’s right for me and my family for each of our grief anniversaries.
Whether you have one of these days or several, I urge you to honor, celebrate, and remember them. These are anniversaries of the heart. It is okay to feel more than one emotion at the same time. You can feel happy and sad simultaneously. Let yourself feel your full spectrum of emotions and honor the day in any way you see fit. There are countless ideas for commemorating a grief anniversary, including hosting a celebration, sharing memories, lighting candles, releasing balloons, baking a cake, or even creating a physical reminder of the day, such as planting a tree or building a memorial bench. Doing good unto others can also be a beautiful and healing way to honor your loved one’s memory, such as donating to a charity or offering your time to a social cause. For me, this has been No Foot Too Small.
I would love for you to share some of your traditions for your grief anniversaries. What do you do? Who do you remember?
Jade Spielman, LMFT, a Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in Ankeny, Iowa. She has been a therapist for about 13 years, with a focus on grief, loss, and bereavement. firstname.lastname@example.org