Anniversaries are different after a loved one’s death. And there are more of them than there were before.
My first wedding anniversary after my husband died was/would have been our 25th. (Note my confused tense. Since he was gone, did I still count each new year as an anniversary? Or did the numbers freeze at 24, the last we spent together?)
Ten months into widowhood, I was “still” in shock. I remember only two things about my first widowed wedding anniversary:
- It hurt too much for “happy anniversary” greetings to be welcome.
- It hurt worse not having it acknowledged at all.
The kindest contacts let me know they were thinking of me — and of my loss. I read my friends’ support in texts, emails, Facebook messages, handwritten notes, and cards. Others left phone messages I heard later (because I didn’t feel inclined to answering the phone that day).
If you’re wondering whether (or how) to mention your friends’ wedding anniversaries after they’ve lost their spouses, here are some tips:
- Say something before the anniversary if you can. For many bereaved, the days leading up to are as hard as (if not harder than) the day of. Even a belated acknowledgment is better than none.
- Avoid cheery, cliché greeting-card greetings.
Don’t say, “Happy Anniversary” as if this year is no different (even though you do wish them happiness).
Don’t say, “Have a wonderful anniversary” (because without their beloved spouse that’s not likely).
- Acknowledge the loss. Anniversaries after death are inextricably interwoven with that loss. Phrases like these are helpful:
- “I’m thinking of you as your anniversary approaches.”
- “You’re on my mind this week. I know this anniversary will be different.”
- “I know you’re missing your sweetheart.”
- “You’re in my thoughts and prayers.”
At the start of the post, I mentioned there are more anniversaries after a death than there were before. Death marks a family’s calendar with its own darkly circled dates.
All the “typical” commemorations are there — holidays and birthdays and, yes, wedding anniversaries.
But for anyone who has lost a loved one (parent, child, spouse, sibling, best friend …) the death-added days are there, too — the death date, the funeral date, the day the death certificate finally arrived, the day the cemetery marker was installed, and (in cases where death was expected due to illness) the dates of first symptoms, first diagnosis, hospice care, etc. All are anniversaries of their own sorts.
Even when death was expected (and perhaps welcomed) at the end of a long, productive life (ultimately impeded by a painful, protracted illness), such “sadiversaries” or “angelversaries” carry pain for the survivors as much as they bring remembered relief for the release of the sufferers.
(A quick side note here: As “happy” as I was for my 54-year-old mother’s release from the cancer that entrapped her body, and as “grateful” as I was that my 47-year-old husband was no longer imprisoned by the premature deterioration of his mind, I was — and still am — neither happy nor grateful that either of them died so young. I’d have much preferred decades more together. So, please. Please don’t tell me — or anyone mourning — why we should be glad or thankful for our loved ones’ deaths. Grieving is not compatible with Pollyanna’s “glad game.”)
I’d say all such dates are difficult to get through during the first year, but that would do a disservice to everyone who has lost someone close to them. Love has no time limits. Neither does grief. I mentioned not remembering much about my first widowed anniversary, but I don’t remember the second one, either. The shock of widowed fog (and other grief) can — and often does — blur more than a single year’s worth of seasons.
We will always mourn those we’ve loved, but we won’t always be consumed by that bereavement. Given time and encouragement, we learn to live with the grief. We learn to live in spite of it. We learn to live forward again.
But as anniversaries approach — even years later — we can always use expressions of loving help and caring encouragement from our friends.
My husband died 2 weeks short of our 51st Anniversary. His memorial service was held in our backyard the day before that Anniversary. I spoke and even sang (badly…cried all the way through the song) at this event because he was concerned before he died why I didn’t sing anymore. I was blessed to have met him at 19! We had 50 years at home but his illness lasted over 24 years getting more debilitating as time wore on. I break down and have a “pity me” episode; than thank God for bringing him into my life so soon. I would love for him to be here still, but I love him enough not to want him to have to suffer one more minute in a body that deceived him. I AM STILL MARRIED; on Anniversaries (1st date and wedding) I wait until dark and send balloons of love up to heaven and toast us with champagne. As long as I feel him near me (!) he is. I go out; go through the tasks that must be done but all the while with my secret that in my mind and heart I can conjure up his laugh, his smile, and know that somewhere, out there…he waits.
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What a sweet tribute to the lifetime of love you have shared with your husband. I’m sorry that you are now celebrating these special anniversaries without him at your side.
I found your article very helpful. My neighbor recently lost her husband to cancer and I was working on some little gifts to give her on their anniversary. This article really pointed me in the right direction as far as writing her a personal message and letting her know we are thinking about her. Thank you for sharing.
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Thank you for showing your neighbor such thoughtful care, Chelsea!
We celebrated our 60th anniversary on June 30, 2018, My wife had cancer at the time and she died on May 8, 2020. I have all congratulations cards and was not able to send thank you cards. Would like to send all a thank you card no, about 400 congratulation cards. The hall had a limit or we could have had 500.friends and family. Viola was the love of my life. Think of her all the time. Any suggestions are welcomed. Thank You
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Samuel, thank you for telling how dear your Viola is to you. I can only imagine the lifetime of love you two shared together. It sounds like you had a wonderful celebration of your 60th anniversary. I cannot begin to imagine the depth of your grief, and I am sorry for the pain of her loss.
Your desire to send thank-you cards now is admirable. If you feel that doing so will bring you comfort, please, please pace yourself to manage so many. (It’s important to prioritize your time and financial commitments as well as your rest, hydration, and nutrition while your body is grieving and your life has changed so much.)
With such a large number of cards, consider making copies of one message to send to everyone. If appropriate, you could add a written message in reply to especially meaningful notes or gifts.
However, please know that it is also okay if you decide now (or at any point in the future) not to reply to all the cards you and Viola received. Those who expressed their heartfelt congratulations to you likely did so without any expectation of acknowledgment beyond sharing your celebration.
I hope these suggestions can be of benefit to you. Whatever choices you make, please be gentle with yourself in these tender months.