Cliff Diving/pixabay/cc0
Source: Cliff Diving/pixabay/cc0

I am fortunate.  My friends and family always remember anniversaries that have somber significance and they are always aware that holidays can be emotional times.  And they are kind and thoughtful enough to check in with me.  I can’t tell you how often I have been asked, however, within this context, how I will get through the day. And I have always recounted my plans – how I intend to share the day, with whom, and doing what activities.  I tell what is the same and what may be different.  But, lately, I have come to realize that, unintentionally, I have been painting an incomplete picture, because I have conveyed the least important part of my special days.  I have merely given a glimpse into the external manifestations of my process, but what can be hidden from view is crucial.

First, let me say that everyone handles their issues the best they can and what I am about to tell you should not be construed as a prescription or a judgment.  This is simply what I do.  Perhaps the shock of the suddenness of Andrew’s death caused me to surrender fully to my feelings.

The siren call of an impending “special” day, be it a holiday like father’s day, or an anniversary, sometimes begins weeks in advance.  There is that date on the calendar that looms ever larger, either a literal or figurative circle around a numbered box, as the hours march inexorably forward.  It is the date on which something happened in the past, perhaps something horrible beyond description, or perhaps something wonderful that can never happen again.  Either way, it is a marker of significance, a punctuation in the daily sameness, a pause that is pregnant with meaning.  It is meaning that I myself invest in what, for others, may be just an ordinary day.  And such meaning almost always elicits a powerful emotional response.

I experience a yearly cycle around special days.  They offer an opportunity to mark the passage of time, to recognize and integrate the slow changes from day to day that may have escaped notice during the routine of life.  Usually, these are occasions simultaneously for celebration and for wistfulness.  They also elicit reflection.  How can it have been so long since Andrew died (see “Unstuck in Time”) and yet how can so much have happened?  However, for many, each such day, each such season, becomes a time of heightened pain and longing, presaged by an even longer span of anticipation and of dread, during which it seems natural to question, “How will I get through this?”

Now, when I am asked, I answer, “I don’t.”  Over the decades since my son’s death, I have evolved to a new understanding. The meaning inherent in times of significance gives them fullness.  To be sure, such richness can be emotionally intense because of the depth and variety of feelings that arise.  I choose to embrace both the intensity and the import of the moment.  For me, meaning and intensity are the essence of life.

From Dear Andrew:

At a family camp experience in 1988, the first without Andrew, on day one, I fully invested in each activity, “but then I broke down afterwards… Then, somehow, as with the passing of a cloudburst, violent, but short-lived, I was all right and ready to rejoin the group…Later, I sat alone on the end of the dock, and my tears mingled with the lake water. It was a deeper sadness than I felt earlier, but with less distress, and I was comfortable sharing it with the night breeze. As I write this, I see that what I was doing, without thinking about it, was that I was losing myself in whatever was going on, inside and out. It was a form of commitment to just being—the deepest form of investing. I was certainly unaware that evening, however.”

A year and a half later, in 1990,

“Last night, Lin and I went to see the musical group, Manhattan Transfer, with Dale and Pam, to celebrate New Years Eve. The music was wonderful. I found myself tapping my foot in time and simultaneously, tears were streaming down my cheeks. You see, it is the first day of the new year, and a new decade… The nineties is the first new decade without you. I have noticed that more and more, my experiences are amalgams of what seem to be intensely opposite feelings.

So it was last night, with the joy of the music and the company, alongside the recognition of one more demarcation of time passing without you.”

It’s important to add that, in each instance, I was surrounded by people who didn’t just accept my expressions of heart, but who welcomed them. 

It is also important that I do not judge what I feel.  It is so common to hear people say they are doing well, especially when not feeling sad, or they are doing poorly, especially when they are tearful. And we unintentionally encourage each other to do this by asking, “How are you doing?”  To answer this question requires a summary judgment.  “I am doing well, “ or, “I am doing poorly.”

Yet, when I am in mourning, it is natural for me to cry and so I am not necessarily doing well if my eyes are dry.  Nor does it mean that I am doing poorly if I am feeling sad.  I find that when I judge my feelings, it is tantamount to carrying on an internal warfare.  I am at peace when I accept whatever feelings I happen to have.  So, perhaps a better answer to the question, “How are you doing?” would be, “I’m doing.”

But, meaning and essence do not accrue only to special days.  Their unexpected appearance can occur on so-called ordinary days.  For example, on random occasions, I may learn that someone has found my writings helpful to them and I am deeply moved. That my experience and my expressions of feeling can find their way into other’s lives humbles me and fills me with a profound sense of our universal connection. That my search for understanding can shine a light for others in their own quest infuses me with a spiritual connection to an unimaginable whole. 

And so, my approach to getting through the day is the same, whether it is a special day or not.  I simply plan to be available to whatever the day brings and I am open to whatever intensity that may lie in store, for even the sad days, even the traumas, have had their place in my life and growth.  I do not judge them and try to classify them into categories of desirability.  These are the memorable times.  These are the times I will cherish and wish to revisit, again and again.

As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue…Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”  (Letters to a Young Poet, 1908)

How do you approach the special days in your life?  How does that compare to the “ordinary” days?  Are you patient with your sadness?

Contains copyrighted material

Cliff Diving/pixabay/cc0
Source: Cliff Diving/pixabay/cc0

About the Author

Robert M Goor Ph.D.

Robert Goor, Ph.D., a staff scientist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, is the author of the book Dear Andrew, a collection of letters to his deceased son.

In Print: 

You are reading

Letters to My Son

How to Get Through the Day

The author discusses how he deals with difficult days, such as anniversaries.

Unstuck in Time

The author reflects on the experience of trauma and its effect on memory.

An Innocent Question

A grieving father shares his insights into a dilemma that many face.