Grieving During Special Days

Anniversaries, holidays, and birthdays make grief come in really strong waves

My family, celebrating what would have been Jon’s 27th birthday (that’s me on the phone, video chatting)

I did one year of weekly group grief therapy following Jon’s death. One thing that we talked about often is when we have to deal with an anniversary–the day our loved one died, a holiday, a birthday, and any other milestone. Anyone who is grieving knows that you can go weeks, even months, of being pretty okay. But then one of those significant days comes along, and the loss feels just as raw as the day it happened.

Jon’s birthday is November 14th, and with it kickstarts a slew of days that bring a lot of pain. It’s like my body doesn’t have time to heal from the first cut before another comes along. The timeline goes like this:

November 14th – Birthday

A couple of weeks after, Thanksgiving

December 3rd – the day Jon died

December 25th – Christmas

It is one reminder after another that he is missing. In all of the joy and happiness of the season, there is an unmistakable void that follows me. But you don’t have to lose someone around the holidays to feel that emptiness. Anytime family or friends come together to celebrate, it’s painfully obvious when that one person just isn’t there.

My “Jon blanket” is one of those items that brings me comfort on the hard days

There is also an immense amount of guilt that flows from the pain. You feel guilty for being so sad when everyone else around you just wants to be happy. You feel guilty for not paying enough attention to the family and friends around you because you are so focused on your loss. You feel guilty because you know you should be celebrating and living life to the fullest when the person you love cannot.

There is also an awkwardness when all you want to do is reminisce about the person you lost. I find myself refraining from telling even funny stories about times with Jon because I don’t want to make everyone around me feel bad for me. I want to talk about him and include him, but it’s hard to do that sometimes without bringing a layer of melancholy over the room.

So how do I get through these anniversaries without completely breaking? I follow the advice of my grief counselor and make a plan. Write down your day and list what you are going to do. Give yourself a focal point that you can identify when the grief begins to overtake you. My plan for Jon’s birthday went like this:

  • Go to a work conference
  • Come home and change into pajamas
  • Bake cookies
  • Watch “Chopped”
  • Facetime my family

It wasn’t a special list of things, and I did deviate a little. But having the plan itself is nice because it gives my brain permission to go on autopilot. If I can focus on checking off the next thing on the list, I can get through the day.

A photo from Jon’s 22nd birthday, one of my favorite memories

For anyone else out there who is grieving, make a plan for yourself to get through the upcoming holidays. No matter how simple or silly your plan may seem, it can help ease some of the strain. And if you are sitting there in the middle of the festivities having a hard time finding the joy, know that you are not alone. I see you, and it’s okay to not be okay right now.

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