The anniversary date of a loved one’s death sometimes burdens us with its call to attention. The call may come insidiously days or weeks before the special day, catching us unaware and sometimes vulnerable. But with years of practice many bereaved become savvy to the waves of grief that have them revisiting touching memories of their loved one’s death.
Over the years I’ve spoken with countless men and women who all agree that each death anniversary they experience holds its own level of revisited pain, renewed confusion and unexpected insights. The first anniversary is commonly revered by our culture as the point at which mourning comes to a close and the bereaved return to normal life. Unfortunately, those of us who have experienced a death know that is typically when we awaken from our numbed state of mind and are faced with the real work of grief.
The second anniversary may erupt once again with vividly detailed memories of the death and can send us reeling right back into the pain we thought we had conquered and put to rest in the course of the previous year. This inspires the need to be gentle with ourselves as we navigate these turbulent waters once again.
The fifth and 10th anniversaries mark, for some, a triumph over time. We ask astoundingly, “How did I survive this long without him/her?” These milestone years offer us the gift of life review, in which we discover how we have created a new life that holds safe the precious memory of our loved one.
I recently marked the 20th anniversary of my beloved husband Trent’s death. Because we buried him in September, I have learned over the years that as the summer heat gives way to chilly fall breezes, I naturally remember him more frequently. This year was no different, though I must admit the intensity with which I met my anniversary grief caught me by surprise.
Busy with life — returning a daughter to college, working overtime and continuing my advocacy for the bereaved — it was not until a few days before the actual date that Trent’s memory vied for my attention. Though it was shocking to realize that the date had literally snuck up on me, I had also recognized an insidious sadness that had enveloped me like rolling fog on the sea.
I found myself near tears at the most inopportune times and a vaguely familiar need to voice the details of Trent’s death and how it had changed my family forever. After 20 years, there are few left who engage in my latent grief, so I circled the wagons, calling upon my dearest friends, who so kindly offered support and consolation in my need.
Sitting by Trent’s grave on the 20th anniversary of his death with one of his dearest friends, I found comfort in sharing our stories and our mutual love for him. I am still reeling from the deep grief I revisited that day, which after two decades was surprisingly every bit as real as the day he died.
Much of that grief, I discovered, erupted from the layering of years that I have built upon the memory of that fateful day. I celebrate the life Trent and I shared, but as I review my life following his death, I mourn the loss of my partner, the father of our children and my day-to-day life with him.
In the years since Trent’s death, my girls and I have marked special events and occasions — the first day of school, birthdays, graduations, first boyfriends, career successes and so much more — that he has missed, and we have experienced without his love, support and special touch. But even with the loss, I can celebrate with gratitude this wonderful life I have created for my daughters and myself. I now can count these years as the blessings that they are.
The unexpected insight that I have been left with in the aftermath of this poignant anniversary is multifaceted. It was made clear once again how important telling my story to a supportive soul is for the rendering of grief. And as I purged my heart with the telling, I realized how greatly missed my husband still is and conversely, though the life I chose with Trent is no longer mine to enjoy, how wonderfully blessed I have been in the years since his death — grief and all.
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