How To Deal With A Death Anniversary

When my dad died 14 years ago at the age of 47, my family instinctively knew how to spend the first few days: making funeral arrangements, contacting friends and family, picking a burial spot, and gathering with hundreds of people in a church to say a formal goodbye.

It was after that first week that grief became a tumble in the dark. When we–my brother, sister, and I–said good-bye to our mother and returned to our respective homes, we did so with hearts torn and little direction. Not so long ago, people like us would have worn black for a year to give everyone else a clue that we were mourning, but neither our cultural, nor faith traditions have such concrete practices in place now. Modern life, for better and worse, doesn’t allow for public declarations.

It was when the death anniversaries started that I realized how lost we were on ways to grieve. Dad died on the 15th of February, which meant the 15th of every month thereafter was jagged and painful. When the one-year anniversary itself came, I had given birth only eleven days before. I faced that hated day with the blessed distraction of my newborn son and the crumbling emotion that came with night and the fresh reminder that Dad was gone and wouldn’t be coming back.

My community doesn’t have words like shraadh or yahrzeit to give name to the reality of a death anniversary (though “deathday” may be coming back in style, thanks to Harry Potter). We don’t have formal practices to commemorate loss, not for the first year or the ones that follow. But with my family approaching the 14th anniversary of my dad’s death this month, I can honestly say that the tumble in the dark has grown lighter over the years. I’ve learned ways of handling death anniversaries, some through trial-and-error, others from the wisdom of friends with different cultural and religious backgrounds. In the hope of lighting the way for others making the same difficult, dark journey, I am sharing them here:

Write a letter.

The blazing awfulness of death is that your loved one is gone. Hopefully not forever (shout-out to resurrection and/or heaven beliefs), but there’s no getting them back as quickly as you would like. There’s no way of making the wound their loss leaves disappear. So as a way of bandaging that wound, I write a letter to my dad at least once a year, catching him up on what’s going on in the family he left behind, especially the grandchildren he never met. It’s a beautiful, painful exercise. I invariably feel like somehow, some way, I’ve connected with him.

Enjoy a meal in their honour, including their favourite foods.

This is a custom I learned from a friend of mine who lost her daughter to childhood cancer. On my dad’s tenth death anniversary, we went out for his favourite foods, the foods that illness robbed him of the ability to eat and which we associated with him in happier times. Something about eating his favourite foods made our conversation more celebratory, less sad. It helped us remember funnier things he did, to talk about them almost–almost–as if we were going to see him again soon. It helped make the day so much less terrible.

Spend time with people who are compassionate in grief.

By this I mean people who can hear your stories and aren’t offended by your tears; people who can let this naturally hard day be hard without trying to fix or make you stuff it. The converse of this, of course, is to avoid people who can’t handle your grief. The sad truth is that some human beings can’t access the side of themselves that allows those around them to be upset. They feel–and may even say–that you need to get over your loss on a timeline that they have constructed in their head. This is bollocks. And while you can’t control their opinions, you can with total peace and confidence mourn your loss without having people around who would rather you didn’t.

Do a good deed in your loved one’s honour.

Donations to charitable organizations are common in both secular and religious circles. But lately I’ve been thinking about what particular deeds I can do to stretch out the good of my father’s influence beyond his death, an idea that comes 100% from listening to Jewish shiurim and podcasts over the past year. The idea of directing the power of my grief into making the world a better place is so wise and forward-thinking, I only wish I had known of it earlier.

Visit their grave and chat it up with them.

This is one I can’t do very often, but when I can, I find it deeply comforting. My people believe in rest until resurrection, so when I visit my dad’s grave I do so with the assumption that, in some mysterious way, he can hear me. Similar to writing the letter, I catch him up on my life, ask him if he’s getting along with his neighbours (jokingly, kind of), and invariably end with a good-bye and the tears that come with missing him. Because, of course, I do. And always will. And that’s okay.


I want to end with a caveat: There is no getting over the death of a loved one. There is only getting through. May these suggestions–and they are only suggestions–help with that task, especially on those anniversaries and days when your lost loved one is most heavily on your mind and heart.

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