“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!