The loss of a loved one can mean a lot of changes. You might think you’ve “finished” your grieving, but oftentimes, people start feeling that grief again strongly around the holidays and special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries. Dealing with special occasions the first year after the loss of a loved one can be especially hard. Here are some ways we hope will help your grieving process.
Why This is So Difficult
Let’s start by acknowledging grief is difficult and full of surprises. I would equate it to the weather. It’s unpredictable and changes all the time. As much as you try to plan for it, rain storms of sadness pop up out of nowhere. You are having a great day until you find that bill from the funeral home in the batch of mail and the tears come quickly. What was supposed to be a terrible snowstorm of despair, maybe your first party without your loved one beside you, only brought a slight dusting of pain. A patch of gloomy fog can lift and joy shine down like the sun.
Special occasions after a death are especially unexpected “weather” events.
It’s hard to know what to plan for. We usually want to spend holidays and special moments with those who matter most to us and death leaves an obvious hole that is hard to fill. Special days on the calendar that first year bring back memories of family and friends and times spent together. One psychiatrist writes that about a quarter of widows and widowers will experience clinical depression and anxiety during the first year following the death. The symptoms drop to about 17% by the end of the first year and continue to decline from there. So it does get easier. But it can be hard to know how to survive a birthday when you aren’t happy. Keep reading for some helpful tips.
Be Kind to Yourself
It’s important in the grieving process to make time to be alone and reflect on your feelings and emotions, especially ahead of a special occasion. Find time to sit down with a journal and write down how you are feeling. Pinpoint what is making you anxious and think through what steps you could do to lessen that anxiety. Maybe this was your first Valentine’s Day without your spouse and that brought sadness and fear because they always took you to dinner or sent you flowers at work. Sitting down and identifying those emotions and thinking how you can lessen the pain can help.
Talk to some friends and ask if you can join them in their plans. Stop by a grocery store and buy a bouquet of pretty flowers to set on your counter. There is so much in the grieving process we can’t control, so it helps in finding small things you can control.
It’s also important to take one thing at a time. So often we get overwhelmed when we see 10 things on our To Do list and attempt to complete them all. Commit to check off just one item and be content with that. Therapy and counseling are useful tools to help you navigate your emotions and focus on your mental health. If you already see someone in that field, it might be helpful to schedule a session as you near a significant holiday or special occasion.
Fresh air is always a good idea and the health benefits of walking are undisputed. The former Director of the CDC called walking “the closest thing we have to a wonder drug.” So if you are feeling anxious or sad, take a walk.
It’s also important to give yourself grace and allow yourself to feel whatever it is you are feeling at that moment. We know this is not easy and if you need a few minutes to cry in the shower, that’s okay. That’s why one of our favorite self-care items are these “Be Still” shower steamers.
Lastly, one of the best things you can do in the grieving process is actually help those around you. When we get the focus off ourselves, we actually end up benefiting from it! Consider giving your loved one’s clothes to a family in need or volunteering on their birthday for a cause or charity they were passionate about. Which leads us directly into…
Honoring their Memory
Stories are a great way to honor their memory and keep their spirit alive, especially during the holidays. My grandmother passed away a few years ago and she had a habit of celebrating her birthday “all month long” and so anytime a family member on that side celebrates a birthday, we always remind them to enjoy the entire month “just like Kiki would.” Celebrating a birthday while grieving is never easy so find ways big and small to honor their memory.
It’s important to have pictures of your loved one displayed in a prominent place too. Especially if you have children around, the photographs help them understand who the person was and the role they played. We love our Aura picture frame so we can continually add photos and remember loved ones who are no longer with us. When my stepdad was fighting prostate cancer in 2016, I put together a Shutterfly photo book for him with photos that we knew would make him smile. Now that he’s passed away, it’s a cherished book my mom displays proudly on her coffee table so when guests come over they can look through it and get a sense of who he was and the legacy he’s left behind. This would be a great way to honor their memory if you have small children who love turning pages and seeing pictures of themselves with their loved one.
Another option is to cook their favorite holiday recipe or birthday cake, or something else they enjoyed on a special day. We just marked what would have been my father’s 71st birthday. He passed away unexpectedly two years ago. He also loved a good steak. Around the anniversary of his passing and his birthday, we always cook up some delicious filets, with lots of butter, and tell stories.
Stories are a great way to honor loved ones. Here, my beloved “Kiki” celebrates her birthday all month long. We continue her tradition of extended celebrations to this day!
New Tradition in their Honor
Don’t be afraid to start a new tradition in their honor. Did they have a favorite type of decoration at Christmas time? Did they love gingerbread houses? Start a gingerbread house competition to remember them. If they loved giving gifts, create a Secret Santa that would make them smile. Maybe that person was the one to always bring a silly birthday card to a party. Carry on that tradition and tell the story each time.
Pick something that reminds you of them and do that during special occasions to help remember them in a fun way.
My stepdad was a lover of charcuterie boards long before they were cool. Anytime people visited their home, he’d have put together a selection of cheeses, olives and meats for guests to enjoy. He loved cheese so much we called him a little mouse. Now whenever I create a board, especially if it has his favorite Irish Dubliner cheese, I think of Gary and tell the story to friends.
Here, my charcuterie board is an ode to my stepdad, with a big hunk of his favorite Irish Dubliner cheddar.
Especially during that first year after loss, special keepsakes can be a valuable part of the grieving process. Celebrating your first birthday after the death of a loved one can be especially difficult. Choose a piece of remembrance jewelry for yourself on their birthday. Select a holiday ornament to hang on your Christmas tree to remind yourself that they aren’t forgotten. Choose a memorial candle for the first anniversary of their passing.
My family has a set of windchimes in honor of my step dad and every time I hear their sound, I think of him. Many of us spend a lot of time in our kitchen. Consider a keepsake item that lives in your kitchen so you see it all the time. That could be a tea towel or a favorite mug. Whenever that special occasion approaches, pour yourself a big warm cup of coffee or tea and sit down with your mug and remember all the ways you loved that person and they loved you back.
A keepsake mug will always be loved. Here I hold my Laurelbox “Forget Me Not” mug in the hospital as I prepare to meet our daughter. The mug was given to me after we lost our son in this same Labor & Delivery wing four years prior.
Lanna Britt was a national news producer in Washington DC for nearly a decade covering politics, breaking news and current events. She now lives with her husband and three children in Richmond VA. She has two sweet babies she’ll meet again in heaven.