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The Failure to Commemorate a Death Anniversary

When the date isn't noticed, what does that say about grief?


We were watching the evening news when my husband, Bob, noticed the date and gasped. “August 16th? Oh, my God. Yesterday was Leslie’s and my wedding anniversary,” he said, referring to his late wife. “I can’t believe I missed it.”

“Thank you for sharing that!” I blurted. “You just made me feel better.”

A day earlier, I’d realized that the eighth anniversary of my sister’s death had slipped by the previous day without recognition, let alone acknowledgment, on my part. Not even a photo of Ann, texted to me on the anniversary day by my older brother, had jogged my memory. Instead, I’d thought, Wonder why he’s sending that now?  When it finally hit me 24 hours after the fact, I’d felt an explosion of guilt that had not eased until Bob’s admission of his own oversight.

Powerful Punch of Missed Celebrations

Anniversaries tend to be happy occasions — until they involve someone who has died. As anyone who has lost a family member or a cherished friend knows, the first year following a loss is a calendar of anniversaries that pack a powerful punch: the first Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza with our loved one no longer there to open presents; the loved one’s first birthday with them no longer there to blow out the candles; the first wedding anniversary with the loved one no longer on hand to exchange a congratulatory kiss.

Then, the big kahuna arrives: the first anniversary of our loved one’s passing. Not only are we tasked to mark the anniversary of the person’s disappearance from our life; we have to do it without him or her on hand to offer comfort. Dead, we’re reminded, as if we needed the memory prod. Really, really dead.

After crossing that one-year mark, though, the dark calendar days begin to lose their impact. It’s not so much a feeling of been there, done that. It’s more that all those first-year anniversaries have injected a bit of steel into our spines. We see what’s coming. Determined not to be walloped again, we begin to gird in the days leading up to the Anniversary of Whatever. We let the memories begin to surface, but at a pace we can tolerate. Often by the time the dreaded day arrives, our dread has subsided.

Subtle Shifts in Subsequent Years

Years three, four, and five bring more subtle shifts. By now, we have experience with these anniversaries. Their novelty has faded, their ability to inflict pain has diminished. We find ourselves so effective at bracing ourselves in the days before the Anniversary of Whatever that come the occasion itself, the day often passes like any other. No longer wallowing in the depths of despair, we may even feel heartened by our progress.

But this? To let the eighth anniversary of my sister’s death slip by without any observance at all? My oversight filled me with horror. Shame. Guilt.

That is, until the moment Bob suddenly realized that he had failed to remember, let alone commemorate, what would have been his and Leslie’s 47th wedding anniversary. He’s my gauge, Bob. He lost his first wife two months before I lost my first husband, Joe. During our eight years together, Bob and I have shared our grief candidly, he about Leslie, me about Joe (who died in 2009) and my sister and mother (who both died in 2010).

Typically, one or the other of us will venture into grief terrain with the words, “Have you ever felt — ” By now, we both know that whoever is doing the asking is looking for reassurance that there isn’t something weird or wrong about what he or she is feeling.

We both understand and acknowledge this need for reassurance. While there are social rules, religious rituals and family traditions that help guide the early days of bereavement, there are no guidelines to help process and inform the unending sadness that follows. Left to worry, wonder and work out for ourselves if what we’re feeling is “normal,” it helps to have someone to discuss the ever-shifting tides of our forever-after grief.

I’m fortunate to have Bob for that. I know Bob to be a loving person of sound mind, equilibrium and temperament. While I sometimes question if what I’m feeling is appropriate, I never entertain that question about him. As a result, his startled admission that he’d forgotten his wedding anniversary instantly replaced my guilt with a wave of relief. If Bob could overlook his anniversary, then my own neglect about the anniversary of my sister’s passing must be normal, too.

As we talked about our respective oversights, I realized that until this conversation, I hadn’t grasped that Bob’s and Leslie’s wedding date falls the day after my sister’s death date. How had that gotten by me for eight years? I suspect it’s because I needed all those years to create space in my brain for someone other than Ann when August rolls around.

Grateful for Memories

In the months since then, I’ve made my peace with my memory gaffe. I recognize that though the day passed without acknowledgment, my oversight in no way suggests that I’ve forgotten or become indifferent to when my sister died. That painful date is seared indelibly in my memory: August 14, 2010. Instead, owing to a busy and jagged summer schedule, I, like Bob, simply lost track of where we were in the calendar month.

At the same time, I recognize that it’s not at all simple. Such a memory slip wouldn’t — couldn’t — have happened the first year Ann disappeared from my life. Back then, I had been counting down the days to the First Anniversary of that sad day.

Now, I don’t count. Not days. Not months. Not years. After eight years of grieving my sister, I know something I couldn’t have fathomed that first year when I was anticipating, dreading and marking Ann’s various anniversaries: my grief is neither beholden to, nor buffeted by, the date on the calendar. Whatever the date, I will think of my sister. Each day. Every day.

That’s not to say that I know what the trigger will be. (A song fragment? A scarf knot? The haircut on some woman passing me on the sidewalk?) Or what feeling will get stirred. (Happiness? Melancholy? Longing?) Or how long Ann will be with me. (Moments? Hours? Days?) Eight years on, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter. As long as they keep Ann in my life, I am grateful for each and every one of those memories — no matter the date on the calendar.

Jill Smolowe
By Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief. To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit www.jillsmolowe.com.

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