The anniversaries of my sister’s (8/9/17) and father’s (2/6/04) deaths are the two most impactful days of my life. It’s customary to check in with someone when it comes to celebratory remembrances (Birthdays! Holidays! Hooray for happy times!), but not so much on less festive occasions. A lot of folks put blinders on when it comes to the anniversaries of difficult life experiences, or more likely, they don’t remember.
I do not need people to remember my birthday (though I am trying really hard to be thankful and appreciative for every birthday I get), I don’t care if you remember when I got married. I don’t need well wishes on the 4th of July. I most certainly don’t need you to remind me of the day we ate greasy pizza and took pictures of it 9 years ago (social media reminds us of some really boring moments of our past that are worth forgetting). No two days have altered my life as drastically as February 6th and August 9th. These are the only two days that I wish people would remember.
Every part of my being is touched by the days my dad and sister died.
Some folks like to use the term deathiversary, or angelversary. Neither of those works for me, but I can understand the need for a word to mark that milestone. If we had such a word (and many cultures do!), perhaps that would be a signal that we were more accepting of death and understanding of grief. We all have (or will have) these days, the days when we lose one of the most important people in our lives.
We need a word to describe the indescribable.
There’s a lot to cover on death anniversaries - and I’m going to break this topic up into two parts - today’s entry will focus on how my friends supported me and what you can do to be helpful to others (and how to remember!). Next week I will post about what my family and I did in the days leading up to and on August 9th.
What Happened on the 1st Anniversary of My Sister's Death (the lows and highs):
On the anniversary of Alison’s death, I received a few texts and I was so appreciative that those people remembered without needing a reminder. I didn’t need any profound messages or words of wisdom. I didn’t need advice or platitudes. A simple “thinking of you,” or “remembering Alison today,” was exactly right. Especially on the first anniversary, which for many, is one of the more difficult.
I’m fearful to type what's to come because I don’t want to come across as self-centered or ungrateful, but I didn’t hear from many people, and this surprised me because I’m pretty vocal about my sister's death (thanks, blog, for being a great medium!) and how I had been struggling as we approached the anniversary. I couldn’t stop thinking, “how did they forget?”
For me, the signs are so obvious. Alison died on a perfect summer day. A lazy Wednesday. The environmental signals are so triggering - patchy clouds, strong sun, windless air. A time of year when you expect to feel happiness and gratitude is now the signal to me that life is unpredictable, frightening and that no one is safe. How did my extended family and friends forget? And if they remembered, why didn’t they tell me?
In The Still Point of a Turning World, Emily Rapp Black, regarding her friends’ disappearance or delayed reaction to her son Ronan’s Tay Sachs diagnosis, wrote “I understood this reaction as deeply as I had trouble forgiving it.” I get this. I know that my big and heavy days are not big and heavy days for other people. They have their own lives, they have their own struggles, and they have their own shitty days to get through. But when your world implodes it’s difficult to understand how it can be business as usual for everyone else. I know this intellectually, but I still can’t rationalize it in my heart. I will get there one day (maybe?), but I’m not there yet.
I heard from one friend on the first anniversary of my dad’s death in 2005. Part of this was due to age. I was 21 at the time, and my peers just didn’t know that this was something that would be hard. It never occurred to me to tell anyone what I needed. But moving past his anniversary in silence made me feel all the more isolated.
When other people recognize my hard days, it's a much-needed signal that they understand that I’m still struggling and that these losses are unbearably difficult. Anniversaries of diagnoses and deaths, miscarriages and expected due dates, weddings and divorces are the profound moments that all of us will experience at one point or another. They are life-altering, important and worth remembering.
Fast forward to now, and some truly incredible and thoughtful gestures of kindness and compassion did come my way this year and I wanted to share some of the ways that my friends supported me.
My old friend Carrie (in years of friendship, not age!), sent me a care package and each member of her family picked out one of their favorite things to bring me cheer. Considering that half of her family is 6 and under, I got some fun and creative choices. It was so thoughtful and unexpected and I was so thankful.
My college roommate, Chuckie, sent me a card every day starting on August 1st with instructions to read one per day. At first I was nervous because I thought each might be a eulogy to my sister and I wasn’t sure I was ready for a big dose of crying on each day. Instead, the notes were reminiscent of the letters she sent me nearly 20 years ago when I was a lonely sleep away camp counselor in Maine and she kept me up to date on her summer happenings working at Friendly's. Her gesture was thoughtful and her letters made me laugh — which is hard to do in the month of August. I thought the mail would stop on August 9th, but I got many more for the rest of that month (not all are pictured here).
And now that I've gone on at length about me, I will shift gears and provide an insider's tip to supporting friends and family on difficult days.
How to remember:
I don’t expect people to remember February 6 or August 9 on their own. There are too many dates to keep track of - and that’s why Google Calendar can be your best friend. I learned this trick from my boyfriend (now husband). A couple of years after my dad died I sat him down and told him that I needed him to remember the anniversary of my dad’s death without needing a reminder. He started using Google Calendar and if you look through it you see all sorts of death anniversaries scattered between his doctor’s appointments and work meetings.
You can also use reminders on your phone, a datebook or calendar - anyone still using a Filofax? I’m sure, by now, you have a system that works when it comes to remembering important things. The common theme is that you have to write it down/type it in. If you aren’t sure of the person’s death day or birthday, Googling the obituary is usually a good way to go. If that information isn’t available, you can always ask the surviving family what days they would like you to remember. And then put that sh*t in your calendar!
Which days to remember:
It’s important to note that it’s not just the anniversary of a death that matters. Anniversaries of a diagnosis or surgery, the deceased’s birthday, a change in the seasons, holidays (both real and made-up) - all of these dates can be triggering.
In the first year, every passing month can be particularly hard, and so checking in on those monthly anniversaries could be really appreciated.
Moving forward, milestone markers (5, 10, 20-year markers) may also be especially difficult. If it is a child who died, the year they would have had a particular religious celebration (e.g., bar/bat mitzfah, communion, etc.), the year they turned 16, or the year they would have graduated from high school or college will also be intense.
Other dates to keep in mind would be particular ages (e.g., my sister died when she was 37, my 37th birthday, when I match her age, and 38th birthday, when I age beyond her, will be difficult).
Similarly, I was 20 when my dad died, and I will struggle at 40, when I will have lived as long with him as without. Other common difficult days/experiences include the first birthday of the survivor (regardless of the age they’re turning), first family vacation or gathering, and the first New Year after the loss.
What to do:
The first few anniversaries will be extra hard, and those are where you will probably want to put in a greater effort. Here are some ideas on how to honor the deceased:
- A donation to a related cause or memorial scholarship
- An offer to go out for lunch/coffee/dinner/drinks/ice cream
- An offer to sit quietly together - maybe reading, crafting, watching TV, walking - any simple activity that helps diminish the loneliness
- An act in memory of the person (a hike, a picnic, kindness to a stranger, blood/platelet donation, signing up for the bone marrow registry)
- Write a letter/text/email to the bereaved (especially great if you can share a special memory of the person you both are missing)
- Call/leave a voicemail
- Eat a favorite meal of the deceased
- Sending a simple ‘thinking of you’
- Send a thinking of you gift
I also think it’s really important to share what you're doing with the deceased surviving family (send photos!) - they will appreciate your efforts towards preserving their loved one’s memory.
Most people do not need or expect grand gestures - just knowing the day, and what it means is usually more than enough. Anything more should be for you too — something that you want to do and not just something that you think is expected of you.
How support changes over time
Big gestures will likely not be necessary over time. But it will all depend on your person, and how close you are to them. As the years began to add up for my dad, I no longer expected anyone to remember his death date, though I would have been pleasantly surprised if they had.
The day was also not hard for me to get through. I always acknowledged it, but I didn’t do anything beyond my normal schedule. Of course, this isn’t necessarily the truth for other people and they may continue to struggle through the death anniversary for many years to come (or forever). It is safe to assume that someone will always welcome acknowledgment of their hard days - whether it’s been 4 months, or 36 years. When in doubt, tell them you remember.
What have you done to mark the death anniversaries of the important people in your life? How have your friends and family helped you through those anniversaries? I’d love to hear more in the comments.
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