How does one observe the first anniversary of a loved one’s death? Hair shirts and gruel, or do we lean back on the porch with a six-pack of beer and nostalgia?
Getting through the first year is a major accomplishment, not that we had a choice. We did what we had to do to survive, but it has taken courage, hard work, and the help of others. It’s difficult to believe that an entire year has passed because it seems like they have just died. Yet so much has happened in 12 months that it also seems like a long time ago. It doesn’t matter whether they were a spouse, partner, child, parent, or friend, their death was traumatic, and we have struggled with a host of emotions like anger, frustration, loneliness, and depression that threatened to overwhelm us. Although shock and numbness have buffered much of the pain, we still feel the deep, unrelenting ache of their absence.
Being young and not having lost anyone this close before, I expected grief to be over in a month after my wife died. It would take more than a year. Every anniversary, birthday, and holiday arrived with its own suitcase of memories packed with history and heartache. I wanted to experience each one as fully as I could in the first year so that I could defuse their landmines and resurrect what I had of a regular life. I wanted the good memories to stay good, and not be smudged forever by death’s ashes.
I wanted to affirm every aspect of who Evelyn was, and acknowledge the reality of our life together, from the soaring delights to the challenging lows. I wanted to grieve her for a year to honor all the joy, music and compassion that she brought into the world, and I wanted to say something intelligent about grief so that others could understand the trauma.
No one wants to go through the chaos and dislocations of grief. Many of us try to soften the sorrow and deflect the despair with diversions like burying ourselves in work, drinking too much at bars, or dating right away. But at the end of the day, we still come home to a house that is empty of their love.
So much of grief feels like fear.
There is so much uncertainty, doubt, and confusion swirling around us that we may not know where we are or what we should do. We may no longer recognize ourselves because it seems that we have become a different person. For a time, we need to sit quietly in the stillness that has descended and face our fears. We need to listen to what grief is saying until we understand what it is teaching us about ourselves, relationships, and how death and sorrow will be part of everyone’s life. The first year prepares us to see how our world has changed.
At the one-year mark, we feel ourselves moving away from the person we loved, and moving toward a life that won’t include them. We have found it hard to enjoy life again because we feel guilty that our loved one no longer can. It’s hard to go to a favorite restaurant and enjoying the food without thinking about who is missing. But after an entire year, our loved ones would say it is time.
As the anniversary of Evelyn’s death approached, I wanted to do something to observe the last big event of the first year, and was leaning towards doing something somber. Then a friend of Evelyn’s suggested that I celebrate her, rather than mourn, because this was also the first anniversary of the birth of her spirit. So, I went on a hike through the forest on Mt. Tamalpais, a place I’d never been, and a hike that Ev would have loved. In the evening, I lit a candle to honor her light in my life, and cooked one of our favorite meals.
At the one-year mark, we may not have any idea where we want our life to go, yet we can try ideas out and one step in a direction that we think we might like, and see how it feels. If it brings excitement, we can take another step.
Because of death, we have learned to celebrate every day of life, even if it’s routine, because we don’t know how many days any of us will have. We’ve also discovered the importance of being honest with ourselves and others in what we say and do.