Coping with a Grief Anniversary

Today is the most difficult, emotionally weird day of the year for me: the anniversary of my Dad’s death. I still find the whole series of events really difficult to talk about so instead I want to talk about getting through a grief anniversary and maybe even making something of it.

I’d never thought of us as a family that couldn’t talk about things but for some reason, it always felt really difficult to talk about Dad. No one person made it that way; I think it was just because the emotions were so big, no one knew how to navigate them, especially around other people. And because Dad didn’t live with us, it was relatively easy to slide straight back into normal routines because while there was this huge emotional hole, there wasn’t a physical one. So it just became easier to avoid the subject than engage with it. And after a while, it somehow became the new normal, something that I kind of hate when I look back at that time. I wish we hadn’t let that happen, even if I don’t know how it would’ve been possible to cope any other way.

For a while, we tried to do things on the 16th May. On the first anniversary, we went up onto the South Downs and played frisbee as a family – nothing intense or overly emotional, just something that we did together. But the tradition didn’t last very long. We were all very aware of the date and what it meant but I think it just hurt all of us too much to actually do anything about it; just surviving it was hard enough.

For a long time I just couldn’t even think about him because it hurt too much but at some point, he started creeping back into my consciousness, in more than a fleeting-painful-thought kind of way, even though it was still painful. But slowly it was more than just painful and I guess I stopped pushing it away as fast as possible. Because even though it hurt and made me sad, there came a point when I needed to think about him. It was important.

Almost everyday, there’s something that makes me think of my Dad, of a memory we made together or a memory we could’ve made had we had the opportunity: a TV show that he would’ve liked; something superhero related; when I FaceTime each of my parents, I wonder what it would have been like to have him to FaceTime too; seeing girls with their dads at concerts; something animal related or space related because he used to give us books on them and we’d look at all the pictures together; something wolf related because they were my favourite animal and he used to draw them for me… And then there’s the constant wondering because I know so little about him. I was only thirteen when he died and I wasn’t thinking about how long I had with him, how I only had a limited time to learn everything I could about him. Why would I have been?

A lot has changed over time and the family dynamics have obviously changed since we’ve moved into different houses, even different cities. Recently, my Mum and I have tentatively started doing something each year on the anniversary of his death, even if it’s something small. For example, on the first anniversary after we moved into the new house, we bought some wisteria plants for the garden, the flowers of which we both get great joy from. We liked the idea of having reminders of him around us, even if it was in indirect ways. Only one plant has survived but it’s growing well and that feels really special.

Last year, I ordered a poster of the Justice League that I found on Etsy. Justice League was a TV show we (my Dad, my brother, and I) watched obsessively together and he’s the one who got me into superheroes, something I’ve avoided for a long time but came back to fairly recently because they make me feel close to him, rather than just making me feel painfully aware of his absence. Superheroes and the surrounding stories and mythologies are now somewhat of a common thread in my life, in my writing, and in my view of the world and that’s something I got from him. That is his legacy to me so the poster felt like an appropriate purchase to make on that day.

We’re creating positive memories – or we’re trying to, at least – to associate with him, even if he isn’t here anymore to be a part of them.

I haven’t decided what to do this year, not yet. Life has been fairly chaotic and my brain has been very full: of last semester’s work, of the upcoming semester’s work, the migraine that swallowed up almost a week of my life… So I’m not sure how I’m going to commemorate the day this year but I’ll figure it out. With all the research into him and his family history, I feel like it should be something to do with that but I haven’t come to a final conclusion yet. I feel like there’s this weird pressure to get it ‘right.’

Ultimately we all deal with grief in our own way. I’ve read a lot about grief, about the five stages of grief, about the seven stages of grief… And in the context of those, I don’t really know where I am. Most of the time, I still feel frozen on that day, like I haven’t dealt with it at all. There was never really any anger or bargaining and yes, there’s been depression but that’s an incredibly complex issue for me and one I’m pretty sure can’t just be attributed to processing grief. Having said all of that, sometimes I do feel like I’m moving forward: I write songs about him, superhero stuff is a big part of my life, me and Mum have been talking to anyone we can to find out more about him before all of those stories get lost in time. I want to know who he was. I want to know where I came from. And, although it’s probably not super healthy to dwell on, I want to know what my life might have been like had I had him for longer. I can’t help thinking about it, at least from time to time.

Grief is so complicated, possibly the most complicated emotional process that we can experience as human beings. It takes on so many different forms, is attached to so many different circumstances, and even when the situation is the same, two people rarely feel it the same way. But that’s a discussion for another day. I just wanted to take a moment to talk a little bit about grief anniversaries and my experience and… I don’t know… talk about all of this in a way that felt… okay. I don’t know. I don’t really know what I’m doing here today but I needed to write something and this is what I wrote.

Quotes That Helped Me (Grief Edition)

I’ve spent the past several weeks trying to write a post for today, about coping with a grief anniversary, about whether you can turn the day into a positive experience. I thought that talking about grief in a more objective capacity would make it easier to write about my own grief. I tried and tried and tried, intent on completing my plan, and it wasn’t until I actually considered the idea that I didn’t HAVE to do it – actually considered that it might be too difficult emotionally, especially with all the emotions surrounding the pandemic – that I realised how hard I was finding it. So, after a lot of thought, I decided to defer the post. I can always finish it for next year. But that left me emotionally depleted without a post for today.

After finding it so difficult and upsetting to put my own experiences into words, I found myself thinking about quotes, about how other people have put their grief into words. I’ve always found quotes to be a good way to make sense of what I’m feeling, especially the really complex emotions – and I think we can all agree that grief is one of the most complicated emotions a person can feel – so I’ve made a list of quotes that I have found helpful in describing my various experiences of grief. Of course, grieving is an ever changing state of being and it’s not linear or logical, just as these quotes prove, so hopefully everyone will find something in here that makes sense to them.

“Nothing on earth can make up for the loss of one who has loved you.” – Selma Lagerlöf

“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.” – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

“The dead aren’t the only ones who vanish: you, too, can disappear in plain sight if enough is taken from you. I was still missing, in many ways. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to be found.” – Sarah Dessen

“My sister will die over and over again for the rest of my life. Grief is forever. It doesn’t go away; it becomes a part of you, step for step, breath for breath. I will never stop grieving Bailey because I will never stop loving her.” – Jandy Nelson

“Sometimes you have to accept the fact that certain things will never go back to how they used to be.” – Unknown

“Grief is like glitter; no matter how much you try and tidy it up you’re never going to get rid of it all. You’re always going to find bits of it.” – George Shelley

“When someone you love dies, and you’re not expecting it, you don’t lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time — the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes — when there’s a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she’s gone, forever — there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.” – John Irving

“You were unsure which pain is worse — the shock of what happened or the ache for what never will.” – Unknown

“If you suppress grief too much, it can well redouble.” – Moliere

“Look closely and you will see
Almost everyone carrying bags
Of cement on their shoulders

That’s why it takes courage
To get out of bed in the morning
And climb into the day.” – Edward Hirsch

“‘You’ll get over it…’ It’s the clichés that cause the trouble. To lose someone you love is to alter your life for ever. You don’t get over it because ‘it’ is the person you loved. The pain stops, there are new people, but the gap never closes. How could it? The particularness of someone who mattered enough to grieve over is not made anodyne by death. This hole in my heart is in the shape of you and no-one else can fit it. Why would I want them to?” – Jeanette Winterson

“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.” – Lemony Snicket

“There is not a reason for everything. Not every loss can be transformed into something useful. Things happen that do not have a silver lining.” – Megan Devine

“Grief lasts longer than sympathy, which is one of the tragedies of the grieving.” – Elizabeth McCracken

“Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.” – Megan Devine

“When you lose someone very close to you, someone who makes up this essential part of your history and your future, your worldview shifts dramatically. You have a palpable feeling that everything and anything good can disappear at any time. I missed my dad a lot. I also felt like everyone I knew was going to start dying. I also hated that my dad wasn’t able to go on living. I wanted him to be alive; I wanted him to feel rain on his face, to eat a great meal, to read something funny, for HIS sake.” – Heather Havrilesky

“Grief is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.” – Jamie Anderson

“Tell your friend that in his death, a part of you dies and goes with him. Wherever he goes, you also go. He will not be alone.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

“Eventually something you love is going to be taken away. And then you will fall to the floor crying. And then, however much later, it is finally happening to you: you’re falling to the floor crying, thinking, “I am falling to the floor crying,” but there’s an element of the ridiculous to it — you knew it would happen and, even worse, while you’re on the floor crying you look at the place where the wall meets the floor and you realize you didn’t paint it very well.” – Richard Siken

“You can not die of grief, though it feels as if you can. A heart does not actually break, though sometimes your chest aches as if it is breaking. Grief dims with time. It is the way of things. There comes a day when you smile again, and you feel like a traitor. How dare I feel happy. How dare I be glad in a world where my father is no more. And then you cry fresh tears, because you do not miss him as much as you once did, and giving up your grief is another kind of death.” – Laurell K. Hamilton

“A reminder to remember: just because the sharpness of the sadness has faded does not mean that it was not, once, terrible. It means only that time and space, creatures of infinite girth and tenderness, have stepped between the two of you, and they are keeping you safe as they were once unable to.” – Carmen Maria Machado

“Until now I had been able only to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.” – Joan Didion

“Life seems sometimes like nothing more than a series of losses, from beginning to end. That’s the given. How you respond to those losses, what you make of what’s left, that’s the part you have to make up as you go.” – Katharine Weber

“You never really stop missing someone – you just learn to live around the huge, gaping hole of their absence.” – Alyson Noel

“We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” – Kenji Miyazawa

“We acquire the strength we have overcome.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The healing power of even the most microscopic exchange with someone who knows in a flash precisely what you’re talking about because she experienced that thing too cannot be overestimated.” – Cheryl Strayed

“When you meet someone who’s experienced loss as you have, there’s an unspoken understanding. Grief and tragedy are blood lines that turn strangers into kin.” – Unknown

So I hope this has been helpful, that at least one of these have perhaps made your emotions a little clearer for you. If you have any quotes that have helped you process grief, please comment and let me know. Quotes mean so much to me and are so helpful to me so I’m always on the look out for new, maybe even better ways to explain what I’m feeling when I’m unable to do it myself.