Dick, 62, considered his father his best friend. Many of their happiest times together were spent in silence out on the lake fishing or sitting across from each other in the family business office they shared.
Two months after his father died, Dick became my grief support client in the hope that someone would "really listen." He was confused by what he felt – sadness, deep loneliness, a sense of disconnect from life – because it was so at odds with what people were telling him his experience should be: “Your Dad was in his nineties – you should have seen this coming,” “It was his time – you should be glad he’s in a better place.” “You should be over this by now.”
In our work together, Dick realized he had the right to feel what he felt and learned how to skillfully "ride the wave" of grief when it came up. Which is why he was surprised when a month before the anniversary of his father’s death he once again began to feel daily sadness and loneliness and something new – anxiety and a “flip-flop” stomach.
Anticipating and/or feeling a renewed sense of loss as a death anniversary nears is common. This is another phase of the grieving process that offers yet another opportunity to reflect, to miss the person, to do something to remember. Once Dick realized his renewed sense of loss was normal, we discussed how he could take charge of the anniversary day in a purposeful way that would both honor his sense of loss and celebrate the relationship he had had with his father.
In the end, Dick decided to go fishing – alone.
On the anniversary day, he took the day off from work, had breakfast with his grown children, packed a lunch for two – the kind of sandwiches he and his father would have eaten – and then drove to the lake. While on the water Dick periodically talked to his father, telling him how the year had gone. But most of the time Dick sat in silence just as he and his father had done. On his return to the boat launch area Dick went to the local pub and had a beer to complete what had been the father-son ritual on fishing days. Once home, Dick realized his month-long flip-flop stomach had finally disappeared.
Purposefully acknowledging a loved one’s death anniversary can be a proactive way to balance a sense of loss over their death with a celebration of their life, and a celebration of the life shared with them. Your relationship with the deceased, what is comfortable and meaningful to you, timing (how long ago did your loved one die? day of the week, time of year), the wishes of other family members, and religion and culture all can play a role in how a death anniversary is observed. Here are some ideas on how to acknowledge the anniversary of a death:
Visit your loved one’s final resting place. Many people find solace in visiting a loved one’s grave or the site where a loved one’s cremated remains have been scattered. Resting place rituals can include prayer, story-telling, planting flowers, and more.
If you are a gardener: plant a memory garden. Gardens are symbolic of new beginnings, the soul and the beauty and circle of life. Starting a memory garden on the first anniversary of a loved one’s death and then adding to the garden every year provides a built-in ritual to mark the day. Ideas for memory garden items can include your loved one’s favorite flowers and bulbs; a garden stone embedded with your loved one’s jewelry or keepsakes; old work shoes or boots used as planters; and the addition of bird or animal sculptures.
Go through old photo albums and pictures. This can be a comforting ritual to do with friends and family. Photos help to trigger memories, bringing the past to the present so that an experience can be re-experienced and savored. If gathering in-person is not possible then photos can be shared in a Zoom or Facetime meeting.
Write a letter. Before Dick went fishing, he wrote a letter to his father that he then read out-loud while on the water; the letter was full of the “not-guy stuff” that “guys usually don’t say to each other” - in other words, things Dick wishes he had said to his father but never did. Writing a letter or poem can be helpful in saying what had been left unsaid, processing and expressing complicated feelings, or just reiterating feelings of love and gratitude. Letters can be read out-loud or silently, shared or not, kept or burned or even buried in a garden or someplace that holds meaning.
Host a family dinner a gathering. Sharing with family and friends a loved one’s favorite foods, drink, games, movies or poetry can be a way of celebrating what once was and your loved one’s continuing legacy. If in-person gathering is not possible, having a Zoom cocktail or ice cream hour to remember a loved one is an option.
Light a candle. Candles symbolize illumination, light in the darkness of life and light in the next world. Honoring a loved one by lighting a candle in remembrance can be a simple and complete way of marking a death anniversary.
Listen to music. Music can transport us back in time to special moments or life events shared with a loved one. Creating a memory playlist, listening to a special song, watching a movie musical - even doing a family sing-along – all are ways music can be used in remembrance.
Create a remembrance ceremony. In essence, this is what Dick did on the anniversary of his father’s death – he created a remembrance ceremony around what his father liked to do, and what they had done together.
Consider: did you like to go hiking with your loved one? Then perhaps spending time in nature can help mark the day. Did they go to church several times a week? Then perhaps asking your clergyperson to include prayers for them in the week’s service feels right.
Make a memory quilt. Memory quilts can be made from old ties, sweatshirts, even your loved one’s favorite clothing. Asking friends and family members to each make a quilt square of a specific size using designated materials and then gathering together to complete the quilt top, eat and share memories is another way of celebrating the life of a loved one. Once the quilt is complete, a ritual sharing of the quilt – each family member keeps it for a year then passes it to another family member or friend on the loved one’s death anniversary – can continue in your loved one’s name.
Create an on-line memorial. In the pandemic era, on-line memorials are becoming increasingly popular. When it is difficult to gather together in-person, sharing memories and photos online, on an app or via email can help mark a death anniversary. An online memorial can be keep private if desired or open to invited friends and family members.
About the Author
Elizabeth Lewis is a certified grief support specialist, stress resilience teacher, spiritual counselor and motivational speaker. She travels widely in the United States and Italy presenting talks and workshops on a wide variety of subjects including trauma healing, resilience-building, forgiveness facilitation, mindfulness, and healing art and writing. www.elizabeth-lewis-coach.com