Posted by: jodyglynnpatrick | 09/21/2009

The death anniversary.

“It broke my heart into more pieces than my heart was made of.”

No date is etched as deeply on my heart as Daniel’s death date.

We never truly forget the day our child died. How we honor it (or run from it) may change from year to year, but it’s a marker just the same. It’s akin to our personal 9/11/2001, though the actual day/month/year is likely different. My date is 8/27/1991, for example. It may be a date of no significance to you, but it was the day that the world as I knew and understood it, ceased to exist.

Friends and family may wonder if they should remember it, too.  They may be confused about what is appropriate, however. They may wonder if it would hurt us too much if they acknowledged the pain they once shared with us, fresh as an open grave. Would we resent the tug back to that awful day — if they called or said something to hint that they recalled the significance of the day, as we continue to work to “get over it”? And how should they approach us?

To give people permission to openly remember it, I sent my family a genealogy report with all of our family’s birth and death dates. I also made a birthday calendar for each family member, with color pictures of our loved ones on their birth dates. Black and white photos were chosen or created for deceased family members. So my family can say, “Hey, I see Daniel’s birthday/death date is approaching. How are you doing this year with that?” Our family is pretty blunt and to the point; it’s what I love most about them.

They have reason to ask how I’m doing, because my emotions have run the gamut in the past. “Don’t cry because it’s over, Dr. Seuss advised. “Smile because it happened.” Most days that advice helps me, but it just doesn’t hold water on the anniversary of my child’s death.

Platitudes are easier to recite than to live.

One year into “After,”  I sat at home and cried all day. But that didn’t help. Crying made me feel guilty, like I was seeking a release I didn’t deserve because I had spent a year unable to “fix” it — to barter him back, or to wake up from the nightmare myself. Surely I deserved all of the pain I felt. That’s how I was thinking that year.

That’s called Depression. It’s normal to be depressed on the anniversary of a child’s death.

A few years later, I was doing “okay”, but the pain of separation and grief was a constant, steady throb. To acknowledge the actual death anniversary, I made the decision to go to church and pray that day. After an hour on my knees, I continued to ache with the same intensity. I took that to mean that perhaps my faith was subpar, since I was resisting allowing God into my heart to ease my suffering. WWJD? So I had a glass of wine and then prayed more. But honestly, the combo that year only intensified my sadness.

Truth is, that year I was still struggling with the core guilt of  surviving a car accident that I wasn’t even involved in and, in fact, had never even witnessed. But I was the Mom, and Moms shouldn’t outlive Children. Even if the children die apart from them. Except sometimes they do and we do and it’s terrible not to be able to change places and set the world back on its axis.

Would we like a little company?

Would you like to know that at least one person hasn’t forgotten that one day when the world inexplicably. unexpectedly. and officially went Humpty Dumpty on you?

Wait, wait, let’s backup. We’re ahead of ourselves.

First question: Do you want to actively commemorate it? Do you find solace in remembering… or forgetting? Your child lives on in your heart and mind and memories. It isn’t enough — it will never be enough — but it is what it is. We have to learn to deal with the loss (over and over and over again, anniversary by anniversary) or we will go crazy.

Second question: Would you like companionship on that day — or not? Perhaps you  prefer to be alone to mark the day privately, with your own special ritual or volunteer work or prayers or reflection or mental unconsciousness or day in bed or manic shopping trip or a day at the movies venting anger.  It’s up to you — there is no right or wrong answer to this little quiz. But if you don’t want to be alone, my advice is to clearly communicate that to an appropriate person (family, friend; lover, counselor?). Let them know, through a subtle reminder or by outright statement, that you have a hard day approaching. Then say how you would most like to spend that day.  Then ask for a volunteer from your personally selected audience to step forward to be your assistant that day.

Trying to actively cope with pain does not mean you are pushing it down or denying it’s legitimacy. Taking a breather from grief is not a failure to grieve enough or a failure to hurt enough. You have a lifetime to spread the pain over. If you can take it a day at a time, and ask for the help you may want on those significant days that are especially hurtful, it is a blessing of grace. You can imagine, perhaps, that your ability to cope in this way honors your child, too. You had love in your life and you continue to need it, no matter how adept you may now be at pushing it away.

Another “what if”? What if you are the FRIEND of the person who lost a child. How can YOU help?

  • Send an upbeat “thinking of you” card with a hand-written note asking if there is anything you might do together on xx/xx/xxxx because you know the date may be special to “Emily” and so you’d like to know if she’d like to spend any portion of that day with you.
  • Call and ask the same question. No one will be offended by your asking.
  • Be honest about your feelings, but don’t be too quick to show them, because it isn’t about you and how you feel. It’s about them — it’s about you helping them cope. Regardless how you feel, you may be asked to change your behavior to match what they want to do — whether you think it appropriate or not (maybe you offered to go to the cemetery with them, but they want to go get a drink instead). Doesn’t matter. In the best scerio, you ask them what they want to do rather than make a suggestion yourself; then no one has to feel uncomfortable if expectations don’t match up, because one of you remains unaware that there were any expectations at all — and that’s a good thing in this case.
  • Don’t try to talk them into feeling something they are telling you that they don’t feel at the moment — whether it’s good or bad or indifferent.  Meet them where they are emotionally, not where you want them or expected them to be. Then, today of all days, let them decide what the day will hold. You are extending your hand to them and it is open, palm up. That is the gift.

Shift back to parents: What if you already are at peace with the death date and don’t want people to bring it up?

Someday in the future, you may inadvertently “forget” the significance of the day. Then, when you realize it’s slipped by like an oily snake, you’ll either feel an immense relief … or an immense guilt. A few even manage indifference, but I don’t. I’m never neutral.

If the anniversary day no longer holds significance for you; if the death anniversary is just one more day in a string of many – some which now hold joy and laughter and love as well as pain and despair and happy memories, you have found your stride. And you are blessed this year.

A way to assure your loved ones that the date no longer turns your legs into jelly is to tell them what you do intend to do that day, without making a big deal about it. Just a simple, “Hey, you know, this Tuesday I’m looking forward to shopping for a book (‘by myself ‘ 0r ‘with a friend  — want to volunteer?’ ) says a lot to someone about what you need.

Warning: There is no accurate GPS system yet for roadmapping emotions. The path our feelings take may change from year to year.

Some years, I actually do forget. Then, the next year, the anniversary date is like a beacon that starts shining a month early, every day pulling me like a siren’s song onto the rocky abyss laying before me on a paper calendar. When I can tell I’m going to have a hard anniversary, I ask a friend or family member to hold my hand. I don’t always say why, and sometimes I pick people who I know don’t need an explanation. They remember. They are golden.

And on those days, I try to remember to “smile because it happened” because I had Daniel in my life for 16 years. I want to honor the day he entered my life, and I try to honor the day he left it as well. I was, and am, still his mother. No one can strip that from me. What a gift that was. And when I think of it that way, I do smile because it happened.

Dear reader, I hope you did not expect to find a solitary or simple answer here. How did or do you cope?

Can you leave a messages for others looking to find a way? Do you have a thought or a hand someone might hold for a short time during their journey?

That’s what the Bereaved Parents Watering Hole is all about. Thank you for coming. Drink what you need from it and leave something behind if you can.


©2009: Glynn Patrick & Associates. All Rights Copywritten and Reserved. No part of this article may be reprinted without permission of the author. Contact to request link!


  1. Thank you for this post. I’ve just found your blog and while I’m not even close to the first anniversary of my daughter’s death, I found some comfort in these words. More than that, I’ve found affirmation and “permission” to do what I need to do on the hard days. I’ve gotten that from my mother and two of my closest friends, who have all lost children. I’ve also gotten it from my therapist, but I guess I need to hear it a lot right now. Thank you.

  2. This is an old post and I’m not sure if anyone will see this comment but – just in case and because I can’t find any answers anywhere else – I’m going to post this in the hopes that someone will answer. :) Some friends of ours lost their 9 month old son after a long illness (pretty much his whole life) 2 years ago next week. I sent them a card last year on the 1st anniversary. I plan to send a card this year on the 2nd, just letting them know we are remembering their sweet baby boy, thinking of them, etc. I plan to keep it upbeat, concentrating on how much joy he brought into our lives and how often he made us smile.

    Here’s my question. How long should I send a card? Forever? These aren’t super close friends, more like “close acquaintances” and they don’t live anywhere near us – but I will remember their sweet boy and how strong and happy he was every year at this time, so is sending a card to let them know that ok? Or will it being them more pain? Since they aren’t near and we never see them personally, they won’t have an easy opportunity to let me know that the card isn’t appreciated. I don’t want to be a burden. But I also don’t want to forget or make them feel forgotten. I truly appreciate any thoughts on this matter. Thank you!

    • I think sending the cards is really thoughtful, especially for the first five years or so of childhood. The messages can be moderated to “lighten” over the years; you give more verbal and intential support initially, moving on a continuum to more of a “thinking of you” card. That would be my suggestion. Then, eventually, a “just wanted to say hi” card isn’t so missed when you eventually stop, and I think you’ll feel when that time is right based on what direction the relationship goes.

      Other views or help from our readers?

  3. First I would like to say ‘thank youi” for these words. I am sorry for the loss of your precious child. I lost my first grandson, (age 21) last Nov. I am asking permission to use some of words/sentences in an annivesary newsletter I will be writing. If it is not OK. I will certainly understand. Have a blessed day!!

  4. Thank you for all your comments. It always helps to read what other people do on that day that is forever remembered as the last time you saw your loved one. I lost my beautiful son Marty on Jan. 19th, 2010. He died in a local hospital after a cadiovascular surgeon spent much time convincing him he needed an aortic valve replacement. Marty was proactive and took the dr’s advice. After the surgery Marty stayed 14 days in a coma before leaving us forever. The dr fled to another state and the hospital never answered so many questions. Because Marty had a wife who wished not to pursue his questionable death and I was not listed on his medical records alot of answers have not been accomplished. This was an unskilled surgeon in an inadequate hospital. Marty was the kindest most generous person who loved life and had so much more to do. He was only 34. I wonder if this dr ever thinks of the life that Marty had until the day he performed the surgery and the pain and heartache I go thru every minute of everyday. Beware of dr’s who tell you they are the best.

    Becky Lofllin
    Marty’s Mama

  5. All I know is I feel so very alone in dealing with my 16 year old sons death. Its been almost 6 months and my kids want me to go on with life. How dare they.?

    • Peggy, I will write you a personal note and send to your email tonight…. Jody

  6. I am coming up on the 7th year since my daughter was a stillborn….. I was only 6 months into my pregnancy… and I struggle so much every year… my babygirl would be 7 this year…. and I feel so alone and hurting… :'(

  7. My sons three year anniversary is this Friday and I cant even move. I feel so alone. Im so lost. I have done well over the three years, well I have done what everyone expected of me. I get up go to work, I smile. But it just feels like all of a sudden I the pain is like a physical weight that is just to heavy.

  8. Can anyone help me get back to the graveside?
    Its been six months since we buried our precious son and we need to place a marker. i am physically unable to get to that graveside again. I want to. I think about it allot. That brings total panic. I need to go there. I need to honor my precious child with a marker, I need to stand there again. Or rather kneel there again BUT the pain is so overwhelming that I recoil at the thought of seeing that path of grass ever again. In Dec 2013, Christmas will arrive. along with our son’s birthday. Please some one suggest how I will survive that season. One is bad enough but both events, that other years brought such joy, threaten to make me loose my tiny grip on reality. How do I get to that graveside and keep my sanity and how do I do christmas and a birthday for a son that is gone? Please………help me.

    • I would suggest, Julie, that you go before the laying of the stone. Go with a close friend or supportive family member. Have someone else pick you up, drive, and park a distance away. Walk to it talking about how you are feeling. One step at a time. It is the first revisit that is the hardest, physically, to endure. The second time, the heart does not beat so hard, the blood does not make you feel “swoonish”, but the first time can be hard. The person you choose should be encouraging, and someone who can listen to you as you talk about what you are experiencing and thinking. It is up to you whether the “rehearsal” is with your husband, who also will be wracked with pain, or with a more distant griever. The important thing is that you have time to process all you need to process rather than being expected to show up at another event at a certain time that feels like another funeral. Your child’s body lies in state before you, yes, but his spirit is in your heart and will find a way to comfort your soul as well if you can be open to energy. This is God’s way of supporting you. Mediate on the meaning of the “Footprints” poem and let another carry you — whether it is your friend or your heart (your love for your son) or your faith. I wish you comfort in this journey; I know it will come later from facing this fear. This piece of land that is sanctified with your child’s body. And imagine this community going with you in thought and prayer, wanting to help hold you up as well. Jody

  9. I have come from overseas to be at my sons graveside on what would have been his 40 the birthday .He died in a senseless road accident nine months ago.To go grave is a never ending sorrow I am here alive and he with all his life and vibrancy and fun and humour is lying in the cold earth. Yet I feel I need to be near to him and I see myself down the years making this sad pilgrimage until my own death ends this pain.i still have not put up a headstone I must do it yet I cannot give the order I can’t find the words to put into stone the finality makes me avoid doing this. His grave has always flowers his friends bring them . I have planted snowdrops i hope they will come up and through the years will spread throughout the cemetery from his grave a living memorial to a man so full of life that we shone in his shadow and his absence has made this devastating hole in our lives.

  10. Jody.
    This is Julie.
    I did just what you suggested in getting to the graveside for the first time. Yes. I survived. Broken little pieces but then a huge weight lifted that I could go there and physically stand the loss. God grace is sheltering and holding us tight BUT I WANT my child. Im being asked to make a choice but I cannot pick a marker because I cant withstand ever seeing his precious name there. Will that come in time? How does one start that?
    We “did” Christmas and our son’s birthday all at once. I still cannot find words for that pain . But then the oddest thing happened. 2014 came and the 10 month mark. Our second son got engaged to a young lady we adore. Celebration? Wrong! We waited until the door closed and we both began to sob like the very first day BJ passed away. Why would such a wonderful thing bring such sobbing, almost heart stopping pain? The wedding plans (I am a designer) swirl around me and while I hear myself talk colors and flowers I feel like Im bleeding to death. I am braced at all angles and dont know how to actually face that wonderful day with out one son. They talk about the family photos, I gag at that thought. Only one son will stand up there with his brother. One is missing.
    Please talk about that, I really, truly need help so that my sorrow wont flood over the joy of that day.
    And thank you all for holding my hand. I cant walk here without you.

  11. Julie I still have not choses a head stone for my son and its been over a year and a half I simply cannot find the words to describe the beautiful funny courageous man that he was. Still in November his grave blooms with flowers and colour I tend them its all I can do for him , The utter finality of the headstone makes me feel ill .
    I have no real words of wisdom or comfort life goes on- we are left frozen in time .

  12. November 27th is our day, 15 years on Thansgiving this year. Grateful for Tim’s precious 7 years with us, but missing him so much. He was so beautiful, sweet, and special. The promise of eternal life is such a comfort, really our only comfort. John 5:24 is what I focus on. Tim died of a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma. He lived almost 11 months after his diagnosis. I could never really accept that he was going to die. I had such a sense that I needed to teach him about the Lord when he was young. He said to me when he was 3, “Mommy, I want Jesus to come into my heart.” When the time came, it seemed like he let go of my hand and took the Lord’s.

  13. Our date to remember (17 January 2012), is slowly approaching. OK, we remember every day, but the anniversary of our son’s suicide is always a difficult one. Yet another year to disappear for a day. My husband and I usually plan something that we’ve never done before. This time we plan to do some berry picking at a farm not too far away. It is summer time in the southern hemosphere and the days are warm and bright. Being both strong introverts, we always seems to end up doing something involving nature and steer away from people.

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