The First Year

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.

Then…the surprises.

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.

how far you'

With Love,

Jess

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7 comments on “The First Year
  1. Leanne Erickson says:

    This is so true Jess. Thanks for writing this
    Leanne

  2. Jo says:

    Jesse, tears are in my eyes missing your mom and dad right now. This is such a great post. If I could see you and heather now I’d be giving you the biggest bear hugs.

  3. Elisa says:

    First, thanks for your blog. Thanks thanks thanks. Even though much of my community is unafraid to talk about and be open with death (partly because of who I choose to hang out with, and especially my spiritual community the Reclaiming Witches), I still have experienced a lot of taking care of other people’s awkwardness around death, or having people apologize to me for bringing up death, or their own grief.
    Being one of the first people of my growing of friends to experience loss of immediate family members has sometimes left me feeling isolated. Especially at first, people weren’t sure what to say, or how to act around me when death came up. I wish everyone knew what a relief it is for me anytime someone in my community shares their story, their grief, their struggle. How grateful I am to support my friends through their losses, whether they be close or distant. And yes, stuff does come up for me sometimes. I have felt jealous when someone got to say goodbye, or be with their loved one when they passed. And other messier emotions that feel too tender to share.
    But having experiences that push into those tender parts is part of my healing. Chances to cry or get angry help me thrive more fully. And it’s exhausting when people side-step the subject, thinking they are saving my energy.

    Second, about this post: I resonate with so many things about the first year that you write above. The main thing that was different in my experience was that a lot of my own internal felt experiences of sadness and loss happened delayed for me. I experienced almost two years of being mostly numb to my own experience, shrinking from media and community attention, never really able to feel anything myself. I remember feeling angry and envious that others could cry about it, and I couldn’t feel anything most of the time. I think it was partly due to the public nature of the murder of my mother and sister. When people constantly recognize you from the newspaper, or some distant community connection, you end up doing a lot of tending to other people’s reactions. And also partly the particular trauma responses of my body to the murder happening in a place that for our whole lives together had been experienced as sanctuary.
    I am still learning about how to tend to myself when marking the anniversary 7 years later. My family members each grieve differently, and at first my finding my way was more about trying to have some privacy to grieve in. Additionally, at three years from their deaths, I started dating my now wife, and the death anniversary is the same day as her birthday. We have finally figured out strategies for being able to celebrate her birthday joyfully, which is a relief. Now it is time for me to go back to deepening my own rituals for that day. Ones that honor what that day is for me.

    • mckimmie says:

      Thanks for sharing, Elisa. I hope that in addition to your own rituals, you are able to find a community that is helpful for you – including this one! Communities that are willing and able to hold space for grief can really lessen the suffering we feel. With open sharing, we are reminded of the universality of grief and we are able to grow compassion for ourselves and for others, and continue to see the beauty of being alive. The key is to find that community, whether it is a support group, spiritual community, or online community and be open to receiving its gifts.

  4. raechel says:

    Thanks for this Jessica. It’s hard to say that I’m glad someone understands because I would never wish this on anyone…I don’t want you to understand, but I’m glad you do. Like many things in the last year, that’s another hard thing to explain.

  5. Roger Green says:

    Oh, goodness, yes. There ARE the assholes, who yell, “OK, time’s up! Out of the GRIEF pool. You’re wallowing!” And you want to say “STFU!”

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