Everyone knows that grieving people go through trying times around the holiday season, but the stretch of months from October’s end through the New Year are not the only times that special days occur. Spring and summer months bring with them a whole host of potentially difficult days for the grieving and bereaved. With spring comes Easter and Passover, May brings Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, June holds Father’s Day. Weddings are in abundance, and most graduations, from pre- through grad school, happen during late spring and the early days of summer. Anniversary days, including wedding anniversaries for grieving spouses, as well as anniversaries of the date of a loved one’s death, can happen at any time of the year. This is also true of birthdays, for those who have died, as well as for those of us who are living. My own birthday in the first year following my son’s death was a terribly sad day for me. It was one of my more difficult days during that “year of firsts.” I didn’t think about it beforehand and no one told me that it would be so hard. Perhaps I should have expected it, but it blindsided me. My birthdays have gotten a little bit less raw with each passing year, but no matter what, the knowledge that my first-born child will never be here to celebrate the day with our family is painful.
During the days, weeks, and months after someone close to you has died, you will be faced with the task of dealing with the occurrence of special events. These special days, generally expected to be full of laughter, fun and good cheer will be very different, and very painful, without your loved one. The first year of managing these times after someone we love has died is, as many people will tell you, particularly difficult. But equally painful is the knowledge that every single year, for the rest of your life, these special days will happen without your loved one. Preparing for this reality will be helpful for you as you move through these hard times, in the first year and beyond.
Most of us observe particular cultural, familial, or religious traditions on occasions such as holidays, weddings, graduations, anniversaries, and reunions. Ceremony, ritual and custom are often deeply ingrained in families or within groups of friends. They mark significant times when our actions serve to express and emphasize that which we hold dear in our lives; love, commitment, achievement, the value of our relationships and the people who are important to us. That these kinds of significant days continue to happen when you are in the midst of grief can feel unfair, unreal, and sometimes just downright wrong. You may feel emotionally torn as you think of the ways holidays and celebrations have been traditionally observed in your family, and in your life with your loved one. You might wonder how, or whether you will be able, to celebrate these moments now, without that special person. You may feel anxious, sad, and empty and long to have your loved one as part of the special times that involve the whole family. You may wish you could celebrate the way you did before your loved one died. You may wish you could just skip right over these days on the calendar. You may tell yourself that it is only a number on an arbitrary human-made system and that it doesn’t really matter. This may seem like a good line of reasoning at the time, but it never really works. Significant days and the customs that go along with them, work their ways into our collective cultural psyche and we know those days are different from other days. Your body and spirit may know it even before your rational mind realizes it. You may feel irritable, annoyed, sad and down. You may wonder what is wrong with you, nothing may have happened to trigger these kinds of feelings, you may have thought you were “doing better.” If you notice that you are feeling this way, check the calendar. A significant day is likely on the horizon. All of these feelings and experiences are okay. The important thing is to think and feel and be aware. If painful thoughts and feelings are ignored, important days can feel even worse once they are upon you. Whatever you think and feel, whatever the day that is coming, it is essential to have a plan for how you will manage.
You don’t have to follow through with your plan if you don’t want to, but have one anyway. Having a plan and choosing not to follow it, is far better than having no plan and then not knowing what to do with yourself, or your feelings, when the day arrives. Conducting a personal memorial service or ritual, a day or two before the occasion, might be helpful. This may be as simple as lighting a candle, saying a prayer, or spending some quiet time in meditation. Your plan for the significant day itself might include something as simple as a visit to the cemetery before other festivities, having a special dinner out with family or friends, or something more elaborate or formal, such as a tree planting or a balloon release. There are many ways you can remember and honor the one you love on special occasions.
One of the teen girls I work with is president of her senior class. She has done a lot of difficult and painful grief work since her father died at the beginning of her sophomore year. To honor her father, as well as the changes she has been through since his death, she has made a special effort to include mention of him in her speech for the upcoming graduation ceremony. She says that she knows her father will be with her on that day and that he will be proud of her at her graduation. Though his absence will be painful, her speech will validate her feelings and honor her father’s presence in her life and in her heart.
Whatever you and your family decide to do to honor your loved one on birthdays, anniversaries, during holidays, or for other special events, is entirely your choice. Your participation in these kinds of events and celebrations may be very different during the first year or so after your loved one has died. After a while, you may choose to go back to your family’s traditional activities, or you may decide to permanently change the way you observe and celebrate certain holidays and special occasions. You may choose to create new traditions that include honoring and remembering your loved one every year. Most grieving and bereaved people find that creating these kinds of new traditions to include their loved ones can be difficult, but also very therapeutic. Engaging in these kinds of healing activities can help to create a sense of peace, and a feeling of connection to your loved one, bringing some much needed relief in the midst of grief’s chaos and pain.
Realize that sadness and confusion will likely remain with you on significant days and during special times, even when you have a plan for those days. It may be helpful to know that many bereaved people report that the anticipation of special occasions is often worse than the actual events themselves. Continuing to have feelings of anger, pain, or feeling a loss of control, does not mean that you are not also continuing to heal. Remember that you should feel absolutely free to make changes in the way you celebrate holidays and special events. These changes can be temporary or permanent. Let people around you know how you’re feeling. Tell friends and family about your plan. Ask for help and support. Saying, “this is going to be hard for me and I need some help,” is okay. Tell them what they can do to support you. Give them specific things to do. Talk to other bereaved people who have had a similar type of loss. Find out how they have coped with special occasions.
Having lots of ideas of ways to include your loved one can be helpful. You may want to include your loved one publicly, as my teen client will do in her graduation speech, or do so more privately by wearing a piece of jewelry or clothing that belonged to, or which reminds you of, your loved one. You can display pictures of your loved one in a place that will be seen by celebrants, make a toast, or light a candle in his or her memory at the family gathering. If the celebration includes other people whose lives were touched by your loved one, provide some pretty paper for each person and ask that they write down a special memory, a thought, or a blessing, that you can read later on. You might request that these be read aloud at a certain time during the event. Include your loved one’s picture or incorporate other items that represent him or her in the festivities, mention her name in a special speech, read his favorite poem or spiritual verse, include an arrangement of her favorite flowers, acknowledge in your own way how much this person meant, and continues to mean, to you and to your life journey. Be as creative as you wish in your inclusion of your loved one.
Often these special days come with keepsakes–graduation tassels, wedding favors, photographs, videos, cards, presents from friends and family. It is a painful realization to know that we will never receive a silly card or a heartfelt gift, from the one we love and miss. In the midst of this, try to remember that the memories of your loved one are some of the most important keepsakes you will ever have and no one can take them away from you. You can treasure them, privately and publicly if you wish. Family and friends often wrongly think that they will cause you more pain by talking about the one who has died. Let them know if you want to talk, and share your memories together. Bring out scrapbooks and photos, tell stories of your loved one, ask others to join in with you. Let your friends and family members know that you want to include your loved one in celebrations and on special days and let them know that you need support at those times. Helen Keller said, “What we have once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.” As you plan for and move through significant days during this spring and summer, or at any time of the year, remember that we are never truly without those whom we have loved, and who have loved us. They are always a part of our lives, hearts and minds, even after death.
© Copyright 2011 by Karla Helbert, MS, LPC, therapist in Richmond, Virginia. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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