Let me be real. The first year after a loss can really suck.
It’s like a 365-day sail across a tumultuous sea filled with constant reminders, questions, regrets, and of course grief – in all it’s forms. If you are in (or beyond) your first year, here is a list to which you can probably nod your head.
There are daily reminders.
Especially in the first few months, there are songs, smells, and everyday objects that will trigger memories of our loved one. “Things” will suddenly have more meaning because they belonged to them. When my mom died suddenly, I felt myself clinging to tangibles, giving extraordinary meaning to them. I held tight to anything that could bring her closer to me. For a few days, I slept with her t-shirts – and I still wear her necklace. I think this is all a normal part of the grieving process. At some point, the reminders will bring smiles more often than tears.
There are countless conversations.
For a while, it feels like we have a daily task of reporting our loss to the world until everyone knows. This is freaking exhausting. For months, I definitely skipped parties and networking events full of surface questions, but one can only avoid strangers for so long.
Although I was pretty open to talk about my dad’s death when I was 22, I still would choose to be vague and not bring it up sometimes. I’ve been trying a new method since my mom died: I will not avoid the topic. After all, the purpose of this blog and a lot of my life’s work is to help people become more comfortable with talking about death and dying, so I better start with my own daily conversations.
If someone asks about my family, I go there. If a stranger at a bar ask what I do for work – I tell them the truth. “Both of my parents have passed away, my mom just last year, so I am taking time off from work while I go through, and eventually sell, the house I grew up in.” Sometimes I fluff it up a little. Most times I don’t.
I’m not talking about the good kind here. I’m talking about being on the verge of puking when you least expect it. Like running into people who knew my mom, but didn’t know she had died and having to break the news face to face. And the moment I found myself consoling them. And I remember thinking, “before this, I was having a pretty good day.”
There are even surprises built into moments you are expecting. My mom died suddenly during a work trip in Hawaii. We knew that any day, UPS would arrive with her re-packed luggage sent by the DA’s office. We also knew we were going to have to ID her face at the local police department, before they could have her cremated. And her ashes would arrive in the coming weeks. Knowing a moment is coming doesn’t necessarily make those moments any easier, or less surprising. There was no way to fully prepare our hearts.
There is self-judgement.
Not all memories that arise will be good ones – and when they’re not, we have to deal with the self-judgement of having a single negative thought about our loved one who has died. We have to remember that they were a human, and they were not perfect. Realizing their imperfections can actually bring us closer to them. This is normal and it’s OK.
We may also judge ourselves through a list of regrets, “I wish I would have spent more time with her. I wish I could have told him more about my life. I never got to say goodbye.” This is normal too but we have to be careful not to get taken over by regrets. I found writing (and reading aloud) a letter telling my parents everything I wish I could have done differently. You may find that you will hear their reply. When we identify these regrets, it’s also a huge opportunity to improve our living relationships so we don’t have to feel this way again.
There are the assholes.
They generally don’t mean to be, but at the same time, some people just don’t get it. It maybe a stranger or it may even be a family member. (Stress is high so family problems are common after a death.) People may tell us, “God needed another Angel.” Or that “he lived a good long life.” We’re not ready to hear that stuff. We’re not quite ready to move on, or be over it. If you need a list of “what not to say to someone going through a loss”, check here, or here for two posts I like on the subject.
Then, the holidays.
Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, births, funerals. Each time we try to muster up some spirit to celebrate without them, but in the first year especially, it just plain sucks. For instance, you never realize how many Father’s Day and Mother’s Day emails and ads you get until you don’t have a father or mother around anymore.
On each of these special days, it feels like there is a hole that no one can fill. And on top of missing them in those moments, we are also faced with the reality that no holiday will be the same going forward. We may try to create new traditions, we toast to them, but most of all, we miss them.
And then we finally reach the day – 365 days later.
All of our feelings in the first year come to a head at the anniversary of the death. A flood of memories arrive. For me it was remembering the phone call from my sister where I found out my mom died, recalling how I screamed and fell to my knees. Then called friends so I wouldn’t be alone. Then I flew home, planned the service, hosted the visitors, heard the stories, and felt inconsolable for many months. It was a truly comfortless time. It felt like time stood still, yet flew by.
I like to look at the anniversary day as a milestone for the bereaved, as much as it is an anniversary of the end of a special life on earth. It is a day to recognize how far you’ve come in your grieving process, to celebrate that you’ve made it through one year. And not just any year, the hardest year. Because it does get easier from here.
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