As most of us age, we have more and more of those difficult anniversary dates to contend with. This is not limited to later stages of life, but the older we get, the more likely we are to have experienced multiple losses of loved ones.
When I look at my calendar, of course it is marked up with client appointments, doctor and dentist appointments, and lunch dates with friends. I can’t help thinking, though, about the dates that are not marked or highlighted in ink, but that are indelibly imprinted on my mind.
These are the dates on which I have lost loved ones, and unfortunately, there are many for me. I try to set aside some space on these days to be alone, to allow myself to remember, to feel, and to be sad if I need to. The intensity of the sadness has mostly diminished with time, but it does return and can briefly feel just as fierce and gut-wrenching as it did in the past. I am glad that time has allowed the inclusion of funny anecdotes and of pleasant and happy memories, so it isn’t just a time for tears when I remember, but I won’t pretend there are not tears, even about deaths that happened a long time ago. Just because someone has been physically gone for a long while, doesn’t mean that you love or value them less now than you once did. In fact, it is human nature to cherish and value people even more when they are gone from our lives. It’s too bad that people are this way, but it seems to be true. (If only we could remind ourselves of this and could make ourselves pay attention to who and what are cherished and important to us right now.)
Sometimes the sudden and intense recycling of grief can be triggered by other things going on in our lives, and sometimes the anniversaries themselves are the triggers, causing us to react differently than we might normally, to people or unrelated events in our daily lives.
I was speaking the other day with a staff member of a local long term care facility. We were asking her a multitude of questions because we were checking out possible places for my mother-in-law, who will not be able to remain too much longer at the nearby Assisted Living Dementia Care Facility where she has been for over two years now. We were inquiring about how they made matches for roommates and about the types of needs and personalities of their current residents. We wanted to know if they had residents who were aggressive or combative at this time.
She explained their matching process, but also told us a story about one resident. The woman resident, who has moderate cognitive and memory impairment, is usually very cheerful and sunny to everyone. She said that the other day, this woman had been extremely grouchy from early in the morning till her bedtime. Nobody was able to determine why, or to extract an answer from her that made any sense. She had snapped at everyone who spoke to her. Normally, this woman likes to be involved in activities and seems to greatly enjoy interacting with other residents. On that day, she had refused to participate, would not chat with anyone at all, and insisted on sitting in a lounge by herself. When coaxed to join the other residents, she grew upset and quite angry. She shouted that she just wanted to be alone. She was either unresponsive or angry for most of the day. The staff gave her the space she seemed to need, but was watchful.
The following day she woke up and appeared to be her usual pleasant self. There wasn’t a trace of the previous day’s mood. Nobody said anything to her, but the staff noted the change. When her relatives visited that evening, the caregivers mentioned how their mother had been the day before, and the difference in her mood that day. Her son reminded the caregivers that the previous day had been the first anniversary of his father’s death. The father had shared a room with his wife at the facility for a year prior to his death.
The son then asked his mother if she had remembered what day it was yesterday. She appeared blank and stated that she did not. He decided not to share the information, and his mother proceeded to chat about something she had made in arts and crafts earlier that day. However, during the rest of the son’s several hour visit, she repeatedly asked about her late husband, which was not something she typically did.
This story struck a chord with me. We are not always fully conscious of the triggers that upset us and cause our grief to resurface. Still, our bodies and minds react in ways that can surprise us and others around us. When we feel ourselves growing extremely sad, or find that a very bleak or irritatable mood is upon us, if we have lost loved ones in the past, it is probably a good thing to examine our feelings and to inquire of ourselves if there are any obvious triggers, such as an anniversary date approaching. Even though we may believe that we are very aware of the significant dates and are unlikely to ever forget or overlook them , that may not always be the case, as life and time march on. Our behavior and moods may be influenced even when we don’t mark the dates or consciously think about them. If we notice ourselves feeling very blue, angry or irritable, we might need to make the effort to give ourselves the care, time and space to think about what is happening, and, if moved to do so when we realize, to give ourselves the gift of allowing ourselves to have and to express whatever emotions we need to. Those close to us, as well, who know of the anniversary dates, can be supportive by listening when someone wants and needs to speak about a lost loved one and sad feelings, rather than sending the message that “the past is the past” and the topic is closed and off-limits.
It is a fact of life that every anniversary date will not be a “Happy Anniversary”, but we can and should learn how to pay attention to our feelings and to take care of ourselves.