Death Anniversaries: How We Supported Ourselves


On a whim, I signed up for a grief retreat hosted by Modern Loss. I didn’t think much about it at the time, I just knew that I loved Modern Loss (because of their book, website, Facebook group, and Mother’s/Father’s Day gift swaps). I figured it would worthwhile, but I didn't really think about what it would be like to attend. The retreat happened to fall just before my sister's death anniversary on August 9th.

On August 5th I travelled to the Kripalu in the Berkshires to attend the multi-day grief retreat/workshop led by Rebecca Soffer, Emily Rapp Black, and Christine D’ErcoleI was incredibly anxious on the day I drove to the workshop from our AirBnB. The ten minute car ride was the first time I really thought about what I was doing. I have had a hard time trusting my gut lately. Sometimes I make decisions and they turn out wonderfully, other times I make decisions and then I end up sobbing in front of people I’d rather not cry around. I never know what’s going to happen, and feeling out of control is very difficult for me now.

Before programming began I sat down for dinner with two friendly looking women. One was there for a weekend, another was planning to stay a month. I quietly listened in on their conversation that had a lot to do with complaining and holding up various pieces of the cafeteria offerings, questioning whether it was real food (I, on the other hand, ravenously feasted on their mostly vegetarian buffet. It was so luxurious for my non-meat eating palette). 

But once they left the table, I chatted with another woman who would be attending the same workshop as me and I knew that this choice was a good one. While I did cry in the introductions, once I had the basic facts of my story out there, I was able to relax and release some of the anxiety that is perpetually bubbling inside of me.

I want to be respectful of my fellow attendees, so I won’t disclose anything about the personal stories of the women I met (yes - we were all women, though the workshop was open to all) ((none of us were surprised that there were no men there…)). I will say that we were all there because of death, trauma, or dramatic and unexpected life changes. Over the course of a few days, we shared stories (which happens to be my absolute favorite way of handling my sadness), wrote about poignant life moments, and talked about what we wanted to see and experience in our futures. For some of us our grief was locked down underneath, for others it was completely on the surface. We all had dramatically different stories but were all connected.

Kripalu hosts all sorts of programming, and most people on campus were not there to explore their grief. It is a yoga and health center, and everyone was there for some type of self-betterment. It’s a mostly cell phone free campus with silent breakfasts. There were trails to explore, a lake to float in, and benches placed in patches of wildflowers. It was beautiful and relaxing. My husband and daughter came with me but occupied themselves by day while I was exploring painful memories and listening to other women disclose theirs. And while it felt a bit indulgent, I’ve mostly been unapologetic about the self-preservation mode I've been in for the last 14 months. I turn down invitations, I ignore emails, I leave voicemails unreturned and I don’t really care. My empathy is on hiatus. Instead, I actively look for activities/groups/books that will help me feel better, and this is dramatically different from the way I coped with my grief after my dad died. And while part of me felt some guilt for attending this workshop, that guilt was gone by the time I started speaking with the other women. I mostly wished that everyone could take the liberties that I have when they are grieving. Why shouldn’t we attend a grief retreat? Why shouldn't we skip out on Thanksgiving? Why shouldn’t we do exactly what we want?

We should - and I am sorry that not everyone can.

I actually think that I would have benefitted from attending from a longer session. I didn't make strong connections with the people that I met, or get a chance to learn enough about the people that they missed. I am shy by nature, and in having my family staying with me offsite, it was easy for me to escape to the safety of our family bubble during programming breaks. If Modern Loss runs another event like this, I will likely try to attend. Kripalu does host other grief workshops (not hosted by Modern Loss) throughout the year. Here is more information on their next event in November.

It’s a pretty common automatic reaction to wonder why you would want to spend time with sad people if your goal is to feel less sad. I can say that this group setting at Kripalu, in addition to the bimonthly grief groups I go to through Compassionate Friends, absolutely serve as a release. While I may not feel better at the moment or that evening, I am most certainly lighter in the days afterwards. I am someone who needs frequent reminders that my life circumstances are not unique, that everyone has experienced or will experience profound loss. These groups are also a setting for me to share my experience unfiltered with people who understand and are not judgmental.

My brother with his niece and nephew.

On August 7th, once the workshop was over, my family joined me in the Berkshires and we spent the next few days trying to have fun together (which is also what we did for our first Christmas without Alison and on her birthday in March). We did not have a tribute to my sister, we did not scatter her ashes, we did not hold a fundraiser - we actually didn’t really talk about her. Sometimes I’m not sure if this is a wimpy way out, and other times I know that her absence is just so f*cking obvious that there isn’t a need to draw more attention to it. Now that we’ve passed the one year mark, I can say that I think it’s OK that we’ve moved through the year without official tributes to my sister. We all think about her all of the time, and I think that we will incorporate her memory into holiday traditions and family gatherings in the future, especially as it becomes more manageable to understand that she’s gone forever.

The hardest moments for me were on the 8th and the early morning of the 9th. My mind was trapped in the hamster wheel of this time last year. In the late afternoon of August 8, 2017, we had gotten news from my brother-in-law that Alison was going to be prepared to be released from the hospital and that she was still cancer free. After days of inconclusive tests, this news was met with sweet relief. She’d be in rehab for about a week, and then she would be home. That was the last moment that I felt the complete joy and gratitude that you can only really experience when you have a health scare or other life-threatening experience that turns in your favor. When that call came, the air became light, and while we didn’t whoop and holler, the joy permeated the room. That was the last time I was truly happy.

And then - hours later - that little bubble of safety was popped. Alison was in emergency surgery. The situation was serious. And then, while my daughter napped and I cuddled my sister’s 21-month-old son on the couch, I received the call that she was brain dead.

Flash forward to this year, on August 8th and 9th I was tormented by memories of last August. But once the day moved on past morning, past the anniversary of that terrible phone call, I fell into the enjoyment of being with my family and trying to do fun things with our babies. 

And it was another beautiful day, just like it was last year.

Heaps of fun at Uncle Don's Barnyard.

Sam loved canoeing so much that he went on multiple rides. This was taken on the anniversary of his mom's death. That thought can knock the breath right out of me. But Sam had a lovely day that also included a family bike ride on the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail.



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