Holy Everything: We should acknowledge anniversaries of loss

August 19, 2018

Birthdays and wedding anniversaries. Our Facebook feeds are full of such joyous occasions. We connect with one another on these special days by leaving comments and encouragements online, sending texts and greeting cards, and calling each other on the phone.

But what about the more difficult anniversaries? These happen each year as well, and many of us feel ill-equipped about how to acknowledge them in our own lives and in the lives of those we love.

“Anniversaries of loss” take many forms including the annual reminder of serious accidents, deaths, divorce finalizations, diagnoses, personal traumas and national disasters. Over the course of life, almost everyone experiences a loss that they are reminded of throughout the rest of their lives. This is part of being human. Since we can’t escape loss, we can learn healthy coping methods that empower us to integrate such experiences into our personal narratives. Finding meaningful ways to acknowledge anniversaries of loss is a one path toward reclaiming a sense of meaning and personal agency in a world that can sometimes feel helpless.

Acknowledge it

Some of us try to avoid acknowledging anniversaries of loss by burying the feelings and trying to think about something else. This usually doesn’t work very well and can leave us feeling disconnected from our own sense of self and truth. An alternative approach is to acknowledge the anniversary of loss as well as the feelings it brings up. The word “acknowledge” means “to admit to be real or true.” When it comes to painful annually reoccurring days, it can be a big, empowering step just to admit to ourselves that we experienced something painful and we remember it every year (and we’re often reminded of it other times of the year, too).

For some people, it is a very specific day that is connected to the loss. For others, it is a particular time of year. As it approaches, gently and lovingly notice how you feel. When we turn away from our feelings or ignore them, they often expand or come out later in a distorted way. But if we instead turn and look at them, the feelings often soften.

Extend yourself grace

Be gentle with yourself as you approach difficult anniversaries. Consider sharing about it with loved ones in a way that feels right for you. There is no rule that says you must tell people about it, and there’s no rule that you can’t talk about it. Tune into your own sense of what’s helpful to you.

Whether or not you share about the day with others, treat yourself with the utmost grace, love and compassion. Be good to your body, stay hydrated, and be patient with yourself. What you’re going through is real and significant; your story and your experiences of loss and pain matter.

Notice gifts

One way that some people find meaning in loss is by exploring it for its gifts. Some losses feel too recent and painful for this. That’s completely okay. Don’t force yourself to make meaning in a situation that feels meaningless; life can be painful and senseless beyond words.

But for some experiences, there is meaning to be uncovered, and anniversaries of loss can be a good time to explore those gifts. What did the loss teach you about your own capacity for resilience? What did the deceased person help you to learn about life? How did the experience increase your empathy and understanding of other people?

Mary Oliver has a poem called “The Uses of Sorrow” that goes like this: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” Anniversaries of loss can feel like a box full of darkness from the universe. Strangely and unexpectedly, within the box there can be gifts.

However you experience challenging, annually reoccurring days, know that you are not alone and that you deserve to have peace in your life. May peace be yours as you integrate the realities of anniversaries of loss into your own story.

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