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How Do We Commemorate Significant Dates After a Loss?

A Personal Perspective: Unhappy birthday to me.

Key points

  • Significant dates such as birthdays and anniversaries are painful when we're grieving.
  • We can't expect others to remember; reaching out for what we need is up to us.
  • Whatever we choose to do to honor these occasions is perfect.
Meysam Jarahkar/Unsplash
Source: Meysam Jarahkar/Unsplash

I made it through Tom’s birthday again, and I’m not sorry to see it in the rearview mirror.

My generally-OK-these-days mood spiraled slowly downward for a couple of weeks before I realized the reason: The body remembers even if the brain is otherwise occupied.

But when it dawned on me that Tom’s birthday was approaching—the third since his death—this became a buzz in the back of my mind: Tom’s birthday, Tom’s birthday, Tom’s birthday.

Not everyone “celebrates” (if one can call it that) the birthdays of lost loved ones; admittedly, it’s kind of an odd thing to do, considered rationally. But many of us want to acknowledge them, at least. Tom’s birthday, for me, is a moment to remember him fully—alone and with others who loved him.

They say that people aren’t really gone until no one remembers them, so I’ve made it my job to help keep him alive in others’ thoughts. Not all the time, but sometimes. Tom was well loved, and I know many people think of him at random times (because they tell me), but I also like the cosmic power of all of us thinking of him at once.

Keeping His Memory Alive

I have private moments celebrating him, but I also post his photo on Facebook with a birthday wish and get together with friends. The first year, I had a few close friends over and made pizza from the last of the tomato sauce Tom had made and frozen.

The second year, those same friends and I went to see country picker Marty Stuart—whom we all love and have seen together many times—in concert. This year I met friends at a bar to lift a glass to Tom, and I invited those who couldn’t meet up to lift a glass wherever they were; many told me they did. As it happens, those of us who got together hardly spoke about Tom at all, but for me, being surrounded by friends who also loved him felt right, good, and soulful.

No Expectations = No Resentment

Please note that I initiate these activities because I don’t expect anyone outside his family to remember any of these days that are so significant to me. “The outside world doesn’t measure loss the way we do,” grief expert David Kessler points out, and he cautions us that expectations are resentments in the making.

Goodness knows that if it weren’t for Facebook, I would remember very few birthdays of my friends who are still living, much less wedding anniversaries or other significant (to them) dates. I don’t wait for others to reach out on the days I want to mark; I orchestrate what works for me. And if, for some reason, the day were to come and everything I planned sounded too hard, I would cancel without a second thought. These are times for self-compassion when grief takes precedence over everything and everyone.

Reflections on Our Marriage

Our wedding anniversary is, and always has been, mostly private for me. I don’t care if anyone remembers because, for me, that occasion belongs to the couple. I have reposted a Facebook memory of his that comes up—a photo of us dancing at our wedding with his loving comment—because it moves me. This past anniversary my dog and I drove to a state park a couple of hours from home for the change of scenery, the solitude, and a nature bath.

On these anniversaries, I think about us and our marriage. The fact that our marriage is now a complete and discrete piece of my life is one of the more curious aspects of widowhood. I think about the arc of the marriage, what it meant, what it taught me, and how I changed in the span from beginning to end.

Remembering the Terrible Day

The anniversary of the day Tom died is a particularly tender one that I treat as sacred. I tried to share the last one with others this past year, but that didn’t really work out as I’d hoped; the best part of my day was sitting alone in a park with Tom on my mind. This is the most painful of the anniversaries, and I haven’t yet found the way I want to mark it. Is that the right word? Honor? Commemorate? I don’t know. What do I call the act of remembering the worst day of my life? This is a work in progress.

By the way, significant holidays are a whole different story. Holidays require negotiating grief while everyone else is celebrating, which can be particularly challenging and is something to discuss another day.

But those days that are just about our loved ones and us? Those are ours alone to be experienced in whatever way feels right for us. David suggests (and I concur) that whatever you do for these and other significant days, it helps first to spend some time alone honoring your grief; he visits his son’s grave for some quiet reflection before any other events of the day. This clears the mind some for whatever comes next.

And then what comes next? It’s up to you. You can be despondent or just wistful. You can hug a friend or hug the dog. Spent the day alone or with others. Plan a party or plan to stay in bed.

“Let the day be the day,” David says, which has become a mantra for me. Whatever you do, though, treat yourself gently. I expect these days to be bittersweet for the rest of my life. “Celebrating” may never be the same.

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