After experiencing a substantial loss, any day can make us feel like the world’s been rocked off its axis. The uniqueness of significant dates, anniversaries, and circumstances brings a special kind of challenge, one that can be difficult to navigate.
These challenges can be predicted and prepared for, or they can blindside us.
Significant anniversaries often hold a strong emotional charge, especially when it is one of the first. The date of a loved one’s death or the ending of a significant relationship are two of the most commonly discussed anniversaries. These are fixed dates within a calendar. People often anticipate having a rough day, fear the possibility of a flood of emotion, or wish they could fast forward their lives past this date.
The unpredictable circumstances seem to cause more devastation in the beginning of the grief process, solely based on the lack of mental preparation for the emotional storm. These are subtle things that are not linked to specific dates, however they may be linked to significant experiences. People may struggle on a Sunday afternoon, since that was when they got the phone call telling them about a fatal car accident. Others may be stopped in their tracks, overwhelmed with grief and have to leave the grocery store upon seeing their loved one’s favorite snack.
Something important to keep in mind, when you’re in the throes of grief, all of the firsts are challenging. Here is a short list of firsts to keep in mind that could be difficult to navigate:
• Family gatherings of any kind
• Grocery store trips
• Running into important people in your or your loved one’s life
• Back to school time (for loss of a child)
• Learning of a pregnancy or birth (for early pregnancy loss, stillbirth, or loss of a child)
• Wedding anniversary (for a parent or a spouse)
• Laughing so hard your belly hurts (the feeling of “how dare I be enjoying myself?”)
• Vacations (same as above)
• First time you have an extremely rough day after feeling like you’ve gotten through the worst of it (“I thought I made so much progress, how could I feel this bad again?”)
• First date or first acknowledgement of falling in love with another person (for loss of a spouse or partner)
• First time you realize you are physically limited due to a debilitating condition and have lost mobility or functionality
• Seeing former coworkers after losing a job or hearing of someone’s promotion
• Baby showers or children’s birthday parties (for early pregnancy loss, stillbirth, or loss of a child)
• Going through your loved one’s things for donations or separation among the family
• Getting sober (losing a lifestyle, friends, coping skills)
• Looking at certain pictures, hearing certain songs, visiting places that hold significant memories
• Seeing someone in a crowd that reminds you of your loved one
• Being in an unsafe environment after an assault, an accident, or a natural disaster (loss of assumption of safety)
For most people, this eases with time and repetition. The more you interact with the world, the easier it becomes. Sometimes, even years after a loss, certain things can still be hard. If your loved one died on the 5th of the month, the 5th of every month could be tainted with sadness. Back to school time is usually difficult for parents that have lost children.
To best navigate through these significant dates, anniversaries, and circumstances, we can prepare ourselves in the following ways:
• Understand that loss is hard and there will be emotions, ones you won’t like. So many people think there is something wrong with them since they are so sad or angry. Make the space for these emotions in your experiences. Mentally prepare that it could be a rough day.
• Make a plan. If you want to be busy all day, then pack your schedule. Make sure you leave some time to reflect on your thoughts and feelings. Being too busy to feel may be a brief distraction, however you cannot ignore your emotions completely. If you want to be on the go all day, then go go go, as long as you leave some space for the feelings somewhere in there. Decide what that will look like for yourself.
• Choose to go out or go in. Maybe you want to surround yourself with people or maybe you would rather have some solitude, or a mix of both. Decide what’s best for you.
• If you make plans with friends or family, always have a Plan B. Often, people will tend to avoid making plans because they fear wanting to cancel at the last minute due to being too overwhelmed to go. Be proactive, and tell your support network that you really want to do this, but there might be a chance you could cancel at the last minute and wanted to give them a heads up.
• Choose to be around people with whom it’s safe to grieve. Some people handle grief better than others. On such a tender occasion, reach out to those you feel safest with.
• Make new traditions. Maybe it’s the anniversary of your loved one’s death and you choose to do random acts of kindness in their name, or volunteer work. Some people do things to honor their person’s memory like a walk or a butterfly release. Maybe it’s a holiday and the old traditions feel strange without all the people so you and your family create new traditions. Maybe it’s the first time you’re able to focus on yourself after a nasty divorce or a long period of intense caregiving.
• Allow things to unfold without judgment. Grief is unpredictable. A bad day after a bunch of good days doesn’t mean you aren’t progressing. A good day doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten the pain of losing them. You are doing quite enough to get through your days. Don’t waste your energy passing judgment on yourself.
• If things feel unmanageable, talk to a mental health professional. A little extra support through this difficult time may be just what you need. You can do an internet search for mental health professionals in your area, call your insurance company for a list of covered providers, call your county mental health agency, or if you truly are not feeling safe, call 911, go to your closest Emergency Room, or call your county crisis line.