Honoring Joy and Sadness in Grief Anniversaries

One of the hard things about processing loss is that time seems to be oblivious to it.

The days continue relentlessly forward, no matter how much you want to hit pause, or rewind.

The weather chooses its own patterns, even when your internal storms are so strong that it seems they should be able to influence, somehow, what happens outside.

And the calendar continues to unfold, even when you aren’t ready to face the memories associated with a new week or month. Ironically, as time cycles forward, it can bring new reminders of loss.

Grief anniversaries aren’t just limited to a few big dates every year. There are many situations and events that trigger emotion.

Some grief anniversaries are predictable. During the spring following my husband’s death, I anticipated some challenging dates: Don’s birthday, our wedding anniversary, Father’s Day.

But the seasons themselves are rich with anniversaries that are deeply personal and largely invisible to other people.  As I walk through the emotions layered into this autumn, I’ve discovered four steps that are helping me embrace the joy as well as the sadness in this season.

Step #1: Acknowledge the Layers of Emotion

I have always loved fall. For me it’s a time of fullness.

Don and I fell in love in the fall. When I think of him, I still sometimes envision a backdrop of golden leaves.

Together we brought four of our babies home from the hospital, surrounded by autumn hues.

Fall traditions colored our rural lifestyle. Our family harvested tomatoes, zucchini, pumpkins, peppers, and buckets of apples.

And every year we took a family picture in our backyard. The summer greenery expanding to yellow and orange seemed a fitting way to celebrate our family, growing year by year.

Last year was different. Fall became a season of gradually letting go.

Autumn was a series of quiet, painful realizations of how sick he really was.

His summer routine of tai chi outside in the mornings slowly gave way to days when he didn’t get out of bed until I came home from work in the afternoon to help him.

He gave up his plan to purchase the new motorcycle he had been saving for. His words hung in the air between us, and I heard the unspoken statement that he knew he would not have time to ride it.

He cancelled the travel plans that had animated him all summer. He told me he was in too much pain to travel. Most sobering for me was that my chronically optimistic husband made that decision a month in advance.

Finally, the month-long hospitalization proceeding his death began and ended with golden leaves on the trees.

I wasn’t ready for those leaves to fall.

Autumn will never feel quite the same for me again. I can’t help looking at the dates on the calendar, and the produce in the garden, and remembering the letting go we had to do last year.

But as the leaves change colors this year, I want to also hold on. I want to experience autumn as a time of fullness and gratitude, as well as a time of loss. I want to honor both the joy and the sadness in my memories. That’s why I’m choosing to open myself to the full range of emotion that this season represents.

Step #2: Make Space for All the Feelings

Long before Don’s cancer diagnosis, I came to appreciate the profound emotional impact of our many years together on simple, everyday activities.

There were times that I was moved to tears just sitting in a restaurant, walking by the ocean, or laying next to him in bed. The richness of our shared experience added unspeakable meaning to even ordinary experiences.

Those same emotions, juxtaposed against his absence, can bring unspeakable pain.

I wish I could hide from that pain, shut down the memories associated with him that spring from almost everyone and everything in my life. But that doesn’t work. This grief is too big, and his loss too central to who I am. To shut it down would be to shut down my capacity to feel altogether.

However, I’m discovering that it is possible to feel both pain and joy, loss and fullness. I can experience gratitude for our shared experience and sorrow for his absence simultaneously.

What I call emptiness only exists because of the fullness of my memories.

It’s hard to be present with such strong emotions. I have to pace myself. I’m mindful of the places, people and events that are most likely to be triggering, and I space them out. I give myself time to feel, and periodic breaks from high emotion. I’m gentle with myself.

And it works. I’m not saying the pain has disappeared. It isn’t suddenly okay with me that Don is gone. But I am finding a place in my broken heart for beauty and meaning alongside the suffering.

Step #3 Make Space for Memories

This is a season of remembering.

I quietly acknowledge many small anniversaries—changes in Don’s symptom severity, progress noted on CT scans, the ways that we were each coping as the weeks progressed at this time last fall.

I take the walks we used to do together, alone now. And as I walk I talk to him. Sometimes I cry. Always I feel the beauty and the loss that exist together in this season.

This year our family has created many small rituals to remember him, and to better cope with our pain.

We eat at his favorite restaurants. The ability to enjoy food became precious to him through his battle with stomach cancer, and we remember and honor that.

We tell stories about him.

We share music, especially music brought to life by my children who share his musical gifts.

We each have to come to terms with his loss alone, and also to discover how to pull together.

Sometimes we share conversation, sometimes tears, sometimes silence. It’s impossible to force or even predict how anyone’s emotions will be on a particular day. And that’s okay, because the most important part isn’t some perfectly orchestrated ritual. It’s connection.

Connection comes in ways that are sometimes messy and raw and confusing. It can look like tenderness and comfort, but it can also look like anger and sadness that seems too big to hold. I make space for that too.

As we come together this year, autumn doesn’t feel the same. But it is becoming sacred for us: for the memories, for what we have suffered, and for who we are becoming through it, as individuals and as a family.

Step #4: Make Space for Change

Autumn will never be the same for me.

That realization is painful, but fighting against it is even more painful. And so, I am learning, awkwardly, to embrace the beauty in front of me.

This year we introduced my grandson to jumping in leaves and helped him carve his first jack-o-lantern. I got lost in a corn maze with my teenagers, ate funnel cakes, and am helping to choose Halloween costumes.

I wish so much that Don could be here with us.

I imagine my daughters as small children, playing in leaves, building forts, running through the yard with puppies and chickens and baby goats, their dad right behind them.

His absence hurts.

But the relationships that are his legacy heal.

This year we took our annual family photo. It was the first to include my two sons-in law and my baby grandsons. Our family is expanding in beautiful ways that I had planned for him to be at the center of.

Instead, for the first time, Don isn’t in the picture. But make no mistake. He is at the heart of it.

3 thoughts on “Honoring Joy and Sadness in Grief Anniversaries”

  1. Thank you. Today is the 6th anniversary of my husband’s death. I usually dread the Fall now but your beautiful essay has given me pause. While everyone is posting Veteran’s Day missives the day has an entirely different meaning for me. Your writing touched my heart. I wish you wonderful new beginnings as you travel this road.
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