Acknowledge Birthdays and Anniversaries

After Mom died I hesitated over whether to acknowledge her birthday — or their anniversary — to Dad. I say “hesitated,” but that’s too mild a word.

I was afraid.

What if … he didn’t remember their anniversary ?
What if … he didn’t remember it was her birthday?
What if … he’d forgotten his sadness … and I reminded him?

What if I made him feel worse?

I didn’t know then, even though I missed her terribly, too, that my widower Dad missed her so much more. He was already sad — of course he was — already grieving her absence.

The week of her birthday felt awful, though my husband did his best to help me through it. Then one of Mom’s friends brought me a loaf of homemade bread. She knew it was Mom’s birthday, and she told me about a time when my mother took some to her.

Knowing someone else remembered my mother meant everything!

Even so, I still hesitated to bring up special Mom-related occasions around Dad because, again I thought, What if I make him feel sad by mentioning her?

After my husband died, I realized how ridiculous my thinking had been. Even though I’d wanted and needed acknowledgment of others’ ongoing thoughts of Mom, I’d assumed Dad could “forget” the timing of significant dates. I’d assumed that by mentioning those special occasions I’d “make” him feel more sorrow and longing for her than he already did.

As a widow it felt even more important and helpful to have people remember — and acknowledge — my husband’s birthday than my mom’s, though I still wanted that, too. Before hubby’s death, he was the one who helped me get through Mom’s birthday, the day after his.

Their birthdays fell in the fourth month after his death. Shock had begun to lift, but I was still, frankly, a mess. In that first year, one of my best friends flew 2,000 miles to spend that difficult week with me. She returned again for the week of the anniversary of his death. Her presence made a world of difference!

Another thoughtful woman gave me a card a few days before that same first “angelversary,” as some call it. (Some also call it the “sadiversary.” When my grief was still raw I called it the latter; now tempered by a few years, I think of it as the former.) In her sweet note she acknowledged awareness that it was a difficult time of year for me. Until then I’d known her only as a friendly acquaintance, but we’d not been particularly close. Her thoughtfulness marked the beginning of a now solid friendship.

Don’t be afraid to “say something” to your coworkers, friends, classmates, or relatives who’ve suffered a loss. Even if your kind acknowledgment elicits a tear or two (or an entire stream), you won’t “cause” the bereaved to feel sad — their losses did that! — but you will have demonstrated you care by showing you remember their lost loved ones.

Do NOT Tell the Bereaved “Life Goes On.”

Never tell a newly grieving person that “life goes on.”  Don’t.

The first time I heard that after my husband’s death, my breath whooshed away like when a fifth-grade bully punched me in the stomach. If my lungs hadn’t been empty I’d have screamed, “That’s not true!”

It wasn’t — not for my husband. His life did NOT go on.

It wasn’t true for our family, either. Death ended the life we had together. His/Our/My life did NOT “go on” physically, emotionally, financially, legally, socially. It screeched down a slope, plunged over a cliff, and shattered into flying shards.

“Life goes on?” Straightforward, everyday chores nearly undid me! When I entered the grocery store as a new widow, Halloween decorations mocked from everywhere. My heart pounded faster than my thoughts raced. “How can there still be holidays? How can people put up decorations? How dare they depict death and decay and graveyards as fun?”

I took as much offense at the onslaught of every season throughout that year of “first” annual events. Each birthday, anniversary, and holiday that “went on” without my husband scratched nails across the now excruciating chalkboard of occasions by which we had once marked our shared passage through each calendar page.

That life could “go on” normally — for everyone else — seemed cruel.

During those first shocked, raw months, I felt bruised and fettered by day-to-day evidence that — for others — “life went on” around me.

Gradually, as I worked through the motions of “going on,” I felt a brief loosening of those fetters. Sometimes they tightened again, protesting my returns toward living my own life as I faced “new firsts” without him. When I opened my first “Congratulations! Your story has been selected …” notice, I squealed and waved my arms and shouted (just a bit excited, you understand!) and then — and then I wanted to tell my husband … and my mom.

Ouch, again.

But each time I stepped forward, those fetters stretched a little more, and with each new “first” I found their restrictions looser, briefer. Eventually they began resembling bracelets more than manacles, accessories to my life story more than markings of “The End.”

I’ve learned that life does, indeed, go on, that it can be beautiful again. I, however, like every other grieving soul, had to discover it for myself — when I was ready.