It is a myth that time heals all wounds. Any anniversary of a loved one's death becomes a crowbar in the calendar that reopens those wounds again. What is more accurate to say is that the loss of someone you love creates a permanent hole in your heart that never goes away. But you can build and fortify the muscle around it by focusing on what you still have, what is possible for you and ways you can integrate the memory of your loved one in your life.
Most people suffer these milestones in silence, with few of their friends or colleagues knowing the significance of the anniversary. The people who were robbed of their loved ones on September 11th do have one advantage. All of us know that today is a difficult day for them. The brother of my husband's assistant Tara Butzbaugh was killed six years ago and today her office not only gave her the day off but showered her with comforting hugs and acknowledgments. I will contact my friend Christy Ferer whose husband died, as well as two others I know whose families were forever impacted by those terrorist thugs.
How do you comfort someone on the anniversary of their loved one's death? Hopefully readers will share their strategies. I know that in the research for my book, Don't Let Death Ruin Your Life, there were a few solutions that I found very helpful.
First, ask your friend or colleague to tell you a story about their loved one. A simple, "What do you miss most about Danny?" or "What did you love about Franny?" allows the memories to tumble out which can be not only cleansing but healing. An alternative is just to acknowledge that this is a hard day for the person. Carol, whose son died, told me, "There are only a few friends who do phone but it is one of the greatest acts of kindness. I don't feel so alone."
If you knew the person who has died, call the parent, the sister, the brother, the friend, and mention a trait about them that you remember fondly. It can be anything from "I just thought about Susan and how she always made strawberry birthday cakes for everyone" to recalling how Paul was so cautious that he would drive 40 mph in a 55 mph highway. This brings laughs instead of tears.
Another strategy I have found helpful is to do something that day that the person enjoyed, whether it's reading a mystery novel, gardening, biking or taking a hike in the woods. By consciously recognizing that your loved one has left an imprint on you, it helps make them feel closer to you. No one that we have ever loved can totally disappear from our lives since their presence is felt in our gestures, our mannerisms, our beliefs and our interests. Connect to that.
On the anniversary of my father's death I try to cook something he loved. Dare I say it is Austrian goulash and smelly cheeses that I hated as a kid but nonetheless those aromas now fill me with pleasure and remembrance. A friend now bikes on the trails her husband once followed and she feels he is nearby as the wind brushes against her face.
Another friend's mother was an avid gardener and now she either reads a gardening book on the anniversary or tends to the garden she created in her own home that is filled with flowers her mother loved. Caring about what they cared about provides a needed link -- especially on this day.
Hopefully someone will also remind them that so much focus has centered around the pain of loss that little has been written about the growth that comes from it. According to a Harvard professor I interviewed, those who have early loses are three times as likely to be achievers. Scratch the surface of most charities or social movements and you'll discover that they were started by someone who wanted to right a wrong and turned their sense of helplessness into the need of being helpful. Loss also compels us to throw a lariat of love around our family and friends and appreciate more fully the precious times spent together. Those of us who have suffered loses know that the present is indeed a present. Life is to be savored.
Many people will gather with their families this week so collectively they can all grieve together as well as share stories about the loved one. Which is so important. Once we talk about them, these silent anniversaries of the heart, as poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called them, are no longer secret but become honored reminiscence that provide pleasure as well as the necessary pain. And the pain is not to be ignored. It can inspire. After all, grief just means you loved someone. It should be acknowledged for what it is and what it always will be -- especially on any anniversary.