Dealing with Special Days: Anniversaries, Birthdays and Holidays

Question from a reader: I am just 10 days away from the one year mark of my wife’s death, and the last few days have been horrible. I have that all-too-familiar feeling of dread in the pit in my stomach and I have a hard time concentrating on anything. I don’t know how to explain my mood to my seven-year-old son. All I would love to do is to go to sleep for those 10 days and wake up afterwards. I know that in this journey I am going to take some steps backwards and believe me the backwards steps are not as severe as in the beginning, but I just can’t stand feeling this way.

Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC, responds: It may help to know that many people find death-date anniversaries difficult, since they serve as such potent reminders of all that we have lost. Keep in mind, however, that in many ways, this day will be no more (or less) difficult to get through than any other day you’ve had to face since your wife died. Anniversary dates are really no more than dates on a calendar, and they hold no more power over us than we are willing to give them. More often than not, many people find that the anticipation of the day is far worse than the actual day itself.

Like everything else in grief, you can choose to deal with what you’re dreading by avoiding it all together, or by facing it head-on, holding the firm belief that you’ve made it through this far, and you will make it through this, too. Some mourners decide to think of this first-year-anniversary date as an “expected event” that can be understood as a rite of passage, a turning point, or a marker for a change in attitude, setting you free from that very difficult first year.

I happen to think that the worst thing you can do is to let this day sneak up on you without planning for it ahead of time. I encourage you to develop some sort of strategy that includes a Plan A and a Plan B. Whatever you plan to do with the day is completely up to you (even if you plan intentionally to do nothing at all – but at least that is your plan). You might consider involving your son in your plans – children this age can be so creative in their ideas! You could say to him, for example, that a very special day is coming up, a day of remembrance for Mommy, and the two of you need to think of some special things you can do to remember Mommy on that day.

I want to share with you some lovely ideas offered by Harold Ivan Smith, a dear man, prolific author, teacher, storyteller, grief counselor and teacher, who is often featured as the keynote speaker at national grief conferences and workshops. The following ideas come from a wonderful presentation he presented in Phoenix a few years ago.

You can borrow from a Jewish tradition called a Yahrzeit (pronounced yard-site) ceremony, which is a ceremonial way of acknowledging the anniversary of a death. Some Jews go to a synagogue or temple to recite a prayer, but in addition, they remind themselves of the loved one who has died by burning a 24-hour-candle in the hours leading up to the anniversary. (Yahrzeit memorial candles are sold in Jewish religious supply stores, but you can also find them in the Kosher section of the grocery store. They’re encased in metal, they cost less than a dollar, and they burn for 26 hours. If you’re concerned about leaving a candle burning overnight or when you’re not in the room, Harold Ivan suggests that you place the candle in water in the kitchen sink.)

You can write a letter to your beloved, beginning with how you’ve been doing since her death. Then:

•Write about what you miss most

•Write about any regrets you have in your relationship

•Write anything you wish you had said prior to the death

•Write what you wish your loved one had said to you

•Describe how you are coping, what makes you laugh and cry now

•Close with any personal message you would like to include

•Describe one of your favorite holiday / special day memories: How would she answer you?

Take the letter you write to your loved one’s grave site (or some other special place) to be read aloud, then burn it in your fireplace or BBQ grill.

Then, write a letter from your loved one back to you. Ask yourself: When finished, fold her letter into a small enough size that when you put it into a box it will rattle. Then wrap it as a gift and, when you need it, simply rattle it – so you’ll know it’s a gift from your beloved.

Arrange for Jews to say the mourner’s Kaddish (e.g., Say Kaddish is an online service that arranges Kaddish to be said, according to tradition, on behalf of whomever you choose, at www.saykaddish.com )

Light a candle for hope and remembrance. (If you like, you can do so online, at Light a Candle ~ Online Memorial Ritual)

Other ideas that can be used (on birthdays and holidays, too):

•Set a place at the table for your loved one on that special day

•Light a special candle and share a memory of the loved one

•Tell stories of the person; invite others to do this before a meal, before gift-opening, etc.

•Sing, or listen to a favorite song about the deceased

•Create an ornament to hang on a tree, a wreath or the wall

•Visit a special place that holds memories of your loved one; if you cannot tolerate staying for an entire meal, go for coffee or dessert

•Write a letter to your loved one. Consider reading it to someone else

•Create a website to honor your loved one. (You can ask the family computer “nerd” to do this for you)

•Buy your loved one a present and donate it to a charity, as “a gift from [the person who died]”

•Make your loved one’s favorite meal or dessert

•Plant a tree, bush, or flower

•Say a special prayer

•Make a quilt with the clothing of your loved one

•Change old traditions and begin new ones

•Place a memoriam notice in the newspaper

•Burn a CD of your loved one’s favorite music

•Sponsor a cultural event during the season in your loved one’s name

•Create a memory book

•Donate to / volunteer for a special cause in your loved one’s name

•Find a way to give something to someone else

•Celebrate as you can – not as you can’t!

© 2011 by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC

Reach Marty through her Web sites, http://www.griefhealing.com and http://www.griefhealingdiscussiongroups.com, or her Blog, http://www.griefhealingblog.com

Marty Tousley

More Articles Written by Marty

As both a bereaved parent and a bereaved daughter herself, Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC has focused her practice on issues of grief, loss and transition for more than 40 years. She joined Hospice of the Valley in Phoenix, AZ as a Bereavement Counselor in 1996, and for ten years served as moderator for its innovative online grief support forums. She obtained sole ownership of the Grief Healing Discussion Groups in October, 2013, where she continues to serve as moderator. A frequent contributor to health care journals, newsletters, books and magazines, she is the author of Finding Your Way through Grief: A Guide for the First Year: Second Edition, The Final Farewell: Preparing for and Mourning the Loss of Your Pet, and Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping. She has written a number of booklets for Hospice of the Valley including Explaining the Funeral /Memorial Service to Your Children and Helping Another in Grief, as well as monthly columns, e-books and online e-mail courses for Self-Healing Expressions, addressing various aspects of grief and loss. With her special interest in grief and the human-animal bond, Marty facilitated a pet loss support group for bereaved animal lovers in Phoenix for 15 years, and now serves as consultant to the Pet Loss Support Group at Hospice of the Valley and to the Ontario Pet Loss Support Group in Ontario, Canada. Her work in pet loss and bereavement has been featured in the pages of Phoenix Magazine, The Arizona Republic, The East Valley Tribune, Arizona Veterinary News, Hospice Horizons, The Forum (ADEC Newsletter), The AAB Newsletter, Dog Fancy Magazine, Cat Fancy Magazine, Woof Magazine and Pet Life Magazine. Marty’s Grief Healing website and blog offer information, comfort and support to anyone who is anticipating or mourning the loss of a loved one, whether a person or a cherished companion animal. She is certified as a Fellow in Thanatology (Death, Dying and Bereavement) by the Association for Death Education and Counseling, as a Distance Credentialed Counselor by the Center for Credentialing and Education, and as a Clinical Specialist in Adult Psychiatric/Mental Health Nursing Practice by the American Nurses Association. Marty and her husband Michael have two grown sons and four grandchildren. They spend their winters in Scottsdale, AZ and Sarasota, FL, and enjoy their summers in Traverse City, MI. Marty welcomes reader questions and comments, and can be contacted at tousleym@aol.com or through her Web sites, at GriefHealing.com, GriefHealingBlog.com, and GriefHealingDiscussionGroups.com.

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  • What a wonderful list of suggestions, Marty! I have followed many of them. Several years ago I made a memory cookbooks for the five families in our family tree. The cookbooks contained selected recipes from my deceased mother-in-law’s collection. It began with an introduction, which included a Nana story, and noted that the recipes were reproduced just as she had written them. On Christmas morning I was so excited about the memory cookbooks I could barely contain myself. My feelings proved to be true. “Favorite Recipes from Nana’s Recipe Boxes” were a hit and they have become true keepsakes. When family members make these recipes they feel connected to Nana.

  • Oh Harriet! What an absolutely lovely idea! I’m so glad you added it to this list, and I’m sure your priceless gift to your family members will be treasured for generations to come!

  • Sherry Carroll says:

    My husband died March 26, 6 days after open heart surgery. My birthday is July 2nd and we always went somewhere on my birthday for a few days. I am having trouble processing this with him being gone. I just want to forget my birthday. I am just not interested in anything. I start something then become bored. I have lost the love of my life. We have been married 40 years. Anyway I am reading grief books and have a good support system with family and friends. Any advice n

    • Sherry, my dear, I’m so sorry for your loss, and I can only imagine how difficult this birthday will be for you, since it holds such special memories for you. I hope you won’t feel pressured to do anything at all on that day, unless and until you feel up to it. This will be the first of many “firsts” for you in the year ahead, as the days, weeks and months go by, along with each birthday, anniversary, holiday and all the rest. Remember that in the end, each of these days is just another day on the calendar, another day without your beloved’s physical presence in your life, and they are no more or less difficult to bear than you choose to make them. If you feel like just forgetting your birthday this year, that’s okay. Let it be what it is, and remember that how you decide to spend your birthday this year is for this year alone. It does not imply that you will do the same next year, or the year after that. Grief does not stay the same; it changes through the years, just as you yourself will change in your responses to it.