How to deal with anniversaries of tragic loss

Dealing with loss is difficult. I know this from my own life. The stress from the impact was tremendous, and to say it altered my perspective on life would be an understatement. So, when it comes to anniversaries of tragedies, I speak mostly from my own experience with the subject.

I have heard many perspectives on this topic. Some have insisted to me that it is important to acknowledge anniversaries of losses. The idea is that if I refuse to do this, I am in denial of what has taken place. Or at least, I am in big denial of the impact it has permanently etched on me. Then, there is the idea to forget about it entirely. Life goes on, the past is the past, and it is macabre to sit around worrying about what I have lost when there is so much living to do.

I can see the premise behind both. I’ve heard some polemicists lament that Western civilization is so fast that we have forgotten ritual. Acknowledging anniversaries of death or other tragedies would add some of this needed ritual. What would be the benefit to this? Well, it would be a reminder that life is more than the crazy to-do list that the industrialized world seems to say it is. Death or other tragedy generally serves as an interruption to daily routines, and a reminder that no matter how busy I am, death is one day going to come and stop it all for me. But it can get awfully morose to sit around and contemplate this all day, every day. An anniversary would be a proscribed time frame to acknowledge this. The day begins, you remember these truths that lie outside daily life, the day ends, and you return to normal life and your routine.

But then again, anniversaries can be like wearing a stone around your neck. In my case, from late July through late August, there are a host of either death anniversaries or birthdays of those who have died. If I really celebrated the gravity of each day to its fullest every year, by the end of August I probably would walk myself into clinical depression. Consider this idea: if someone really loved you, would he or she want you to be depressed about natural passings years later? And if they didn’t love you, were abusive, or some other darker reality ruled your relationship, wouldn’t living well be the best revenge in the wake of that kind of tragedy?

Since I have gone many years dealing with this, I have found the best solution for me is not to force anything one way or another. What that amounts for me is that if for some reason, I am noticing the gravity of a particular day, I might take more time to be alone to pray and meditate out of respect for my emotional state, but still live normal life. Maybe I will take things at a slower pace, do the easier things on my to do list, but still keep some kind of routine. It seems to cover both angles. I don’t drain the whole day away wallowing in grief, but don’t suppress an emotion that is, after all, just part of the human experience. If I am so busy that I don’t even notice the anniversary, then I just go with that flow and not worry about it. I don’t plan ahead, and let the mood of the day determine how I handle a particular anniversary.

But in my circumstances for various reasons, it’s only my mourning or whatever it is that I have to be concerned about. You may not want to acknowledge the anniversary of your dad’s passing, but your mother might and wants to include you. What other people want to do, or not do is usually the hardest thing to negotiate in this kind of situation. Compromise is obviously in order.

If you are the one who wants to commemorate, be respectful of the ones who do not and find other people who will be more supportive of what you want to do. Or do something that you would be comfortable doing alone, such as prayer, meditation, or writing a letter dedicated to whomever or whatever it is you lost. If someone else has a need to mark the occasion, you could decline outright or just choose to go along as a support network to whomever it is that needs the ritual of remembering. Declining outright makes more sense if remembering is too painful for you to be beneficial. If you choose this option, maybe as a gesture of support after the commemoration, you can go to dinner or some other neutral event as point of re-entry for your friend or relative. This way you respect yourself but show concern for others affected by the event. It is perfectly acceptable for you to respect your own personal limits, as long as you are respectful of others. Try to create healing, not new wounds; for yourself and other people.

You could always try to celebrate the day by celebrating life and its renewal. On the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist act, I turned off the televised vigil with the reading of the names. My husband and I got in the car, and drove to see a waterfall in a park we never visited before. It was a sunny day, it was still warm out, and the nature was beautiful and calming. I said a prayer for those affected by the terrorist act in the midst of this beauty, and I was answered by the rush of a waterfall far below. The cycle of life and death was here in this moment, and in a moment of remembering death, there was life to remember. On the anniversary of your tragedy, do what you can to embrace life, and do whatever it is to find peace for you and anyone else involved. That is the best way to cope with any kind of tragic anniversary.

One Response to “How to deal with anniversaries of tragic loss”

  1. Kathy T says:

    This was a nice way to observe the 5th anniversary of Sept. 11. Each family has their own way of grieving and observing the death of their loved ones. The reading of names on 9/11 does really get tedious when you see it on tv or hear it on the radio.