Whether it is the birthday of your spouse who has died, your wedding anniversary, or even the anniversary of the death, traumatic dates bring back so many memories, and also bring up so many feelings of loss and sadness. But, they can also give us a chance to mark our progress of healing.
These events mark not just another date on the calendar but they are significant milestones within our personal healing journey. Our lives are put on pause, at any stage of our grief journey; in order to honor our lost loved ones. Birthdays, anniversaries and those other traumatic dates each carry their own significance and weight within our hearts.
I’ve noticed that healing a broken heart goes in fits and starts — I’m miserable, then for a few days, all feels well, then a stray melody or memory triggers immense grief that feels almost like the original pain. Even now, several years later, there is a part of me that can’t believe Steve is gone, or that just two years after he died, my own sweet Mama died.
My mom’s birthday is this week, and Steve’s birthday is coming up in October. Unfortunately, scientists haven’t yet figured out a way for us to alter the calendar so we can just skip over these painful times. The anniversaries inevitably take place. The wrinkle is that the person we wish we were celebrating with is no longer here.
Especially for that first year after the death, the entire month of October was almost impossible to get through. However, over time, I have learned that rather than feeling shell-shocked during the time surrounding these special dates, we can still celebrate. My daughters and I have been discussing what we will do to mark the occasions this year.
For my mom’s birthday this year, my dad and siblings and their families are joining together for a birthday dinner to honor this special woman. In the past, we’ve all met up at an apple farm for a picnic, something we know would have pleased our mom, whose one goal in life was to bring her children together as often as possible.
For Steve’s birthday, over the past couple of years, my daughters and I would go to Rudy’s, his favorite donut shop, and select the same assortment of favorites he used to pick up every morning on his way to work. We then took them to the cemetery, and even though it sounds slightly morbid, we left the donuts on his grave, knowing they’d soon be enjoyed by the deer and birds that make the space their own. So this year, since Steve really loved the theater, we’ve purchased tickets to a lively musical that we will enjoy, even though the joy is somewhat bittersweet knowing that he is not there to share it with us.
Sometimes it’s not our spouse’s special days that deliver an emotional blow. Steve died the week before my own birthday, and that year he died, I wanted no part of any birthday festivities. My extended family insisted on celebrating despite my protests, and it only made me angry. How could they think I could even contemplate my own birthday when there was a giant crater where my heart used to be? Even now, with the anniversary of his death and all the feelings it arouses so close to my birthday, I decided to just stop completely, and instead told folks to celebrate it if they so desired on my half-birthday, six months later. I totally forgot about this until this August, when my sweet daughters surprised me with a wonderful birthday celebration at our favorite karaoke club, and serenaded me with a song they had been practicing, “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” For the first time since Steve’s death, I felt like I had a happy birthday.
What I’ve Learned:
- These traumatic dates come whether we want them to or not. The key to getting through them, and with hope, at some point transforming them into days of celebration and joy, is to plan ahead. Thinking through how I might feel on that upcoming day prepares me for the emotional blast.
- I’ve come up with some creative ways to celebrate the special days, such as baking his favorite cake, spritzing the room with his cologne, spending time with the photo albums while listening to “our songs,” writing about my feelings in my grief journal, and even buying an anniversary card for him. These activities help me remember that even though he is not here physically, his memory will always be held in my heart, and I can cherish those special times we had together.
I think the anniversary of the death is far more traumatic and harder to cope with than any birthdays or anniversaries, because it marks a finality of life and the relationship you shared. In some cases, it is the day that marks the last day you ever shared with this person. In other cases, it marks the last day your loved one took the final breath, and perhaps you were not at his or her side when this happened. Unlike the birthdays and anniversaries, for which during life there is an expectation that each year will be celebrated with an optimistic looking forward in life, the death day is for many of us the hardest because it invokes memories of the saddest times. On the days that commemorate happy occasions, we wish we could all be together again. But we don’t wish to share death days. We just wish they had never taken place.
What I’ve Learned:
- The death day happens once in a lifetime for each person who walks this earth, and is harder for we survivors — it is a matter of what is shared and what we have left to hold on to.
- On this day, I usually take the day off from work, knowing that I might be flooded with emotions. When possible, I visit the cemetery, and always write a letter to Steve, letting him know how I’m doing, and how much I miss him.
- After the first year, I realized that yes, I can get through this day. And it is just one day. I keep breathing, keep walking, and 24 hours later, I’m once again a survivor.
How do you deal with the “harder days”? Have the happier days become easier to cope with? How do we cope with letting go and sharing these memories or feelings rather than holding them in? Please share your experiences with me.
Beverly Chantalle McManus lives in Northern California with her two daughters, who have each now graduated from college. She is Vice President and Treasurer of the Board of Directors for the Open to Hope Foundation, a bereavement facilitator and core team member of the Stepping Stones on your Grief Journey Workshops, and a frequent speaker and writer on the topic of loss and grief. In addition to grief support, she is also a marketing executive for professional services firms.