a celebration of pain? what to do on loss-anniversaries

An anniversary of a death is a strange thing. We know what to do with a wedding anniversary… right? Some of us don’t even know how to remember the date but generally they don’t send us into a blind panic. Gifts, a weekend away perhaps, flowers… But an anniversary that marks the day life as we know it was turned upside down, inside out, and shaken around for good measure? Whether that’s a literal death of a loved one, or the death of a relationship, perfect job, family home, beloved pet.

The date itself can feel like something you are careering towards. Like a toboggan hurtling down a hill, you’re grasping for the brakes and just bracing for the inevitable impact. It’s going to hurt, that’s a no brainer. But what should I do? I would buy my spouse flowers on our wedding anniversary, easy. But should I lay flowers on a grave? Should I look at photos? Watch the video of the funeral?

Should I embrace the pain or try to avoid it and think of “the good times”? Should I refuse to allow my self-preserving denial to take over and force myself to reflect, to remember, to feel?

It’s nine years since Robb died and if I chose to sit and replay exactly what happened on that morning, I would feel the intensity of what I felt then. The pain and the trauma. So, I never do. Grieving well means talking about it and crying when you need to cry. But, most importantly, learning the art of not dwelling on it and thinking about what’s in front of you instead. Because the pain is always there, it may be squashed right down to your toes, but it’s there, ready to reengage at a moment’s notice.

On an anniversary it spreads all over again, without need of an invitation. Here’s some thoughts you might find useful when faced with one:

  • Expect to feel rubbish in the run up to it.

Here is a post from the blog I started writing after Robb died:

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

back again

Dear me. I didn’t see this coming. I feel terrible! I have bad anxiety at the moment. Two nights ago I was in a meeting and my heart was pounding, I felt like you do when you are really nervous but it was stronger then normal and would not go away. I thought I was going to go crazy, it felt awful and I didn’t know what to do to make it go. Just tried praying really, that’s all I felt I could do. I was really unsociable at this meeting, which was a shame but I was overwhelmed by this feeling. My back hurts my chest aches and I can’t tense my muscles for too long because then I get that restless feeling when you want to stretch, usually because you’ve been sitting in the back of the car for too long when you’re tired. I’ve not worked much in the last couple of days. The thought of going out makes me feel tired and drained.

My dad explained to me that the reason I was feeling like this was because I had been under lots of emotional strain and it had become too much and was coming out as this bad anxiety. He also said that it would heal, like a strained muscle. Hearing that made me feel better. Dad told me as well about his friend who had four friends die in a car accident when she was a young adult. The first anniversary hit her like a cement wall and she felt awful and wasn’t expecting it… like me. So that made me feel reassured too.

I feel quite jittery and I can’t focus and I feel unwell – headache and groggy. But it’s ok. I managed to go to work for a bit today. I just know this isn’t the most difficult part of the month yet, can’t wait for the new year.

By “rubbish” I don’t just mean sad. You may not even be thinking about the loss much. One day you’ll wake up feeling physically off. Or anxious. Or depressed. Or angry. I read an online article about anniversaries and the writer described how, many years later, they often forget the actual anniversary. The time of year rolls around and they start to feel a bit depressed. It is when they reflect on why that might be, they realise – the anniversary is a week away. Sometimes the heart bypasses the brain. These things run deep and you can feel them, physically and emotionally, before your brain catches up.

  • There are no rules.

You may want to visit their ‘resting place’. But you don’t have to. You may want to eat their favourite ice cream while you sit on the bench you used to sit on together. But you don’t have to if that just seems like too much to bear. You may want to look at their photograph. But you don’t have to. The vision of their face that appears every time you close your eyes may already be agony.

You may want to stay in bed all day. You can (as long as you can get up tomorrow). You may want to cry, all day. You may want to be alone. You can. You may want to paint, write, or knock down a wall.

Free yourself up to do what you need to do, whatever that is.

  • It’s just a date ultimately and it’s still your day.

I thought about what I might want to do on the 4th. I guessed I should intentionally think about him. But I think about him every day. Maybe we should intentionally talk about him and share memories? We talk about him all the time.

If you have a work thing you can’t get out of. If you have small children you can’t offload. That’s ok. It’s just a date. You carry the pain of loss with you every day. You remember and miss and enjoy memories, every day.

I had been viewing the anniversary as I had described above, like an inevitable punch to the gut that I was heading for, and dreading. But actually it was my choice what I wanted it to be. It didn’t have to just happen to me. Rather than be at the mercy of a storm it could be something positive if I chose to approach it head on.

I don’t mean choosing to just enjoy memories and celebrate the person. People can throw those comments around grieving people and make it sound like compensation for pain. It’s not. It can be hard to engage with the happy memories for a while. Even after a year. And it’s always good to remember: a grieving person’s most recent experience of their loved one was the unwell version. It’s over 18 months since I saw my Dad well and happy. That’s a long time and it’s tragic.

And I don’t mean making the choice to not cry. I started the day on the 4th of April in the bath, hugging my knees and sobbing. I prayed for strength and told God in my still intense shock and disbelief, “it’s just so sad”. Immediately I heard, “yes, it is sad.” You can cry because even after a year, or ten, it will never stop being sad.

So, what do I mean?

I thought about Dad. Who he was to me. I thought about his zest for life. I remembered his enthusiasm with how our (his kids’) lives where unfolding. I decided that the 4th of April would be a kind of New Year’s for me. A time to reflect on how I was living my life. What could I do on that day to further pursue my dreams? I thought I could submit my first ever short story to a competition (but it’s still not ready).

Instead, I painted the walls in our office that surround my new desk. I thought about Dad teaching me how to ‘cut in’ when painting near skirting boards. I thought about when we did a work project together that involved redesigning the look of an interior for his organisation. I came up with the idea to paint chalkboard paint on the wall of our office to create a large blackboard for my ideas – he would have liked that.

It was the perfect task though might seem odd to an outsider. It was productive, proactive, and just… Dad, to me.

I also spent time with my Dad’s partner and my sister. We planted rose bushes that Dad had planned for their front garden. I dug nine big-ass holes, which was rather therapeutic slamming the spade into the soil over and over.

We laughed. Cried. Walked. Ate. Reflected. Talked about normal things. Were quiet. Sat on the balcony with a beer (a favourite pastime of Dad’s).

Charlie Dimmock eat your heart out

What’s the right word to describe the day?

Good? No. Bad? No.

There isn’t one.

It was what it was. And that was fine.




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