On March 19, 2020, the group practice I was with at the time went into partial closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic and I was suddenly filled with fear, worry and uncertainty as to what my future held. Everything I knew was being ripped out from beneath me with no direction on how to move forward.
As we approach the anniversary of our state (well...world, really) wide shutdown, I think about how to acknowledge the anniversary of this ambiguous/living loss. On an even bigger platform, I think about how death anniversaries show up and are addressed through one's grief journey. In this blog, we'll talk about what death anniversaries are, influences on death anniversaries, the meaning of anniversaries, and how to acknowledge/celebrate them.
What do I mean by death anniversaries? Each year, we come up on and live through the day we identify as the one that our loved one passed; these days are marked as the anniversary of our deceased. It's important to keep in mind, not everyone will resonate with this terminology to define these days.
If you're thinking to yourself, "I live through these days but I don't like the term 'death anniversary'". That's okay! As with anything in grief, we have to label and define experiences that make sense to and resonate with us.
What terminology do you use/feels right to you when defining and experiencing the annual day that marks the passing of your loved one?
Not only is it important to talk about the definition of death anniversaries, but it's also important to talk about the meanings behind them. Yes, of course, the most obvious meaning is the annual reminder of our loss. I'm talking deeper than that; I'm talking about finding meaning in acknowledging and celebrating these anniversaries.
To some, anniversaries may be a way for them to really celebrate the life their loved one lived. To others, it may be a painful reminder of the void in their life. Both are very common in grief and you can have both experiences throughout your grief journey. So what influences the wide range of meaning?
Your relationship to the deceased: depending on who the deceased was to you and what role they played in your life, will influence how you view the anniversary of their passing
The amount of time passed: The first anniversary tends to be the toughest due to being early in your grief journey and experiencing uncertainty and discomfort around how to navigate the day. As time goes on, anniversaries transform. This doesn't mean your deceased loved one is forgotten about; rather, like your grief journey, your meaning of the anniversary changes and transforms over time.
What has influenced your meaning of anniversaries?
There are many ways one acknowledges/celebrates a death anniversary and while I could go on and on about all the ways, I'll talk about the most common way; rituals.
While rituals are a common thing we engage in outside of grief, rituals in grief can have a very different impact. Often times, rituals allow us to make meaning of our grief and understand how we go about our life while carrying our loved one with us (tune into a future blog article discussing meaning making and continued bonds as part of the grief process).
So what makes rituals so powerful? The power lies in the symbolism (Feldman, D. 2019). For example, the yellow roses pictured in last month's blog article (Supporting Those Who Are Grieving) are my late Grandmother's favorite flowers. When our yellow roses bloom each spring and we see them every morning, we acknowledge them and say "Good morning Grandma/Mom (in my dad's case). For our family, the blooming and sight of the yellow roses symbolize Grandma still being with us and showing up throughout our day.
In some cases, rituals happen naturally. In others, we find and create rituals. If you're wanting to establish a ritual(s) but are unsure of how they fit into your acknowledgment/celebration of anniversaries, I encourage you to explore the below questions:
What do you want your ritual to symbolize?
When and where will the ritual take place?
Who will be present for the ritual?
Anniversaries are an undeniable part of grief. Having ways to navigate these days can have a great impact on our journey. How the recognition/celebration of those anniversaries look differs based on where you are in your grief journey.
Honor your grief journey and allow your navigation of anniversaries to compliment and feel right within your process.
Here's to living a better life as your best self.
Brittany Squillace, MA, LMFT
Feldman, D. B. (2019, September 28). The Power of Rituals to Heal Grief. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/supersurvivors/201909/the-power-rituals-heal-grief