When we lose a loved one, the time we spend dealing with sadness surrounding that loss can vary daily, hourly or even minute-by-minute. As time goes by, the expectation we have and what generally occurs, is that the sad thoughts spread themselves out further and further apart. We learn to adjust to life moving on and us having to move with it. Simply said, but not easily done. What happens to us emotionally, and how we manage the “triggers” that follow our “adjustment to life” can be another matter entirely.
What is a trigger? This is an occasion, an event, an artifact, a physical resemblance or even a phrase that throws us back into the realm of missing that one person so intensely that we do another deep dive into loss, even for a little while. A trigger can crash and crush you all over again. Is this normal? Generally. Is this unhealthy? It could be, if it is extreme, prolonged and unaddressed. Is this reaction avoidable? Maybe not, but there are really healthy and helpful ways to avoid the crush of it. It can be managed in such a way that it no longer paralyses, and can actually generate a pleasant acceptance and joy.
I have talked with so many others who plunge into some degree of depression at holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and vacations. If the exact date is not enough to spawn sadness and withdrawal, the impending date can be just as bad for producing a reaction.
After losing my son Drew to suicide in 2011, I had a number of triggers that sent me reeling. Christmas was one, his birthday was another; and perhaps one of the most difficult of all – seeing a mother talking, walking and hugging her son. My thoughts were awful – what right does that mother have to happiness when my joy around my child was gone forever? Similarly, the holiday celebration left us with this enormous vacant space where Drew should have been. And finally, what do we do as his birthday date and his death date approached within that first year following? For many, succeeding years are every bit as heartbreaking as the first one.
So, let’s get to the best answer for these very important questions. You may not embrace it right at first; but read on, keep an open mind and then allow it to reside within you, until you can see some wisdom hiding there.
CELEBRATE! Celebrate all of it. Celebrate the birthday, the anniversary, the holiday of your choice, the vacation spot, the athletic event.
- Date of Loss: Perhaps you are asking how you can possibly celebrate the date of loss; how indeed? Won’t this truly hurt me even more? Isn’t there something morally out-of-place about focusing on my loved one’s date of passing? If you think clearly about what you may be doing now and have been doing each year, isn’t it more damaging to your memory to rage angry and depressive, when the opportunity to remember gently and with a hopeful outlook actually exists? I am here to tell you that on or near the date that Drew took his life, my family practices a “pay-it-forward” in which we do something generous, healthy and memorable for someone in need. Instead of hiding, we emerge with a joyous purpose. Instead of sadness and lethargy, we shed tears of joy for others who are about to benefit from our time and energy for the better.
- Birthday: On that first birthday following Drew’s death, his children, wife, sister and friends all came together with 3 enormous undecorated cakes. We brought every type of frosting, jimmies, candy stars, sprinkles, sugar decorations, iced lettering and 100 candles in all kinds of shapes and sizes. We put on Drew’s favorite music really loud and everyone, especially the children, began decorating these cakes until they were beyond description. Lighting the candles almost set the fire alarms off from the heat! Everyone wished him a Happy Birthday and blew out every candle for him. Lastly, all of the most important people in Drew’s life danced around the kitchen to the music he loved the best. Somehow we knew he was listening and celebrating with us. If a birthday remembrance such as this is not within your realm of possibility, then get a cupcake, make a list of all the most cherished and memorable birthdays from years past, then wish your loved one a joyful thought. You may not want to do something each and every year, but that first one can be devastatingly difficult or surprisingly familiar and happy.
- Holidays: Collect memorabilia and photos from holidays past. Pass them around to your guests and ask them to comment on what they remember about those very events; encourage stories that no one knows about and would like to share. Laugh when you learn the answer to things that were heretofore a mystery. Include Christmas, Hanukkah, Easter, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and such. Decorate the holiday/event with items that belonged to your loved one and should be on display. Art, Christmas stockings, flags, costumes, beach balls – you will know what to choose.
- Anniversary: If you have lost your spouse and your anniversary date is one that produces despondence and isolation, try something new to greet the day. Make a list of some of the best ways you spent time with your beloved spouse when they were with you. Perhaps there was a favorite restaurant you would eat at, a vacation spot you would go to, an event you would attend or an activity that you did together. Now ask a friend who knows you and your loved one well, and ask them to do it with you. Plan the day and bring really great memories of those times, and discuss with your new companion the fun and the energy that took place. Buy a token or artifact of the new experience and put it (them) in a cherished place of honor.
So many times people would ask me, “Aren’t you sad when Drew’s birthday comes around, or when Christmas takes place?” My response is, “I don’t focus on what I don’t have now. I cherish the 41 years that he was in my life and we did these wonderful things as a family. I remember it all and share it all.”
How much better is that for my mind, body and spirit? Actually, it is priceless!