“The good fairy isn’t coming,” my mother said. She often said this, not to hurt my feelings or quell my belief in fairies, but make me responsible for myself. I learned this lesson as a child and have applied it countless times as an adult. Identifying problems, finding solutions, and doing the work was up to me. I had to be the good fairy.
In 2007, I thought of my mother’s saying again. That year, my elder daughter, mother of our twin grandchildren, father-in-law, brother, and the twin’s father, all died. The twin’s parents died in separate car crashes and the court-appointed my husband and me as the twin’s guardians. “Hollywood would reject this plot,” a friend commented. “It’s too emotional and unbelievable.”
The twins were 15 years old when they moved in with us. Somehow, I had to do my grief work and raise teenagers. I didn’t know if I could recover from such tragedy and feared I would never be happy again. I was scared – scared to the marrow of my bones – yet had to keep faith in life and myself. Since I had studied grief for decades, I prepared for anniversary reactions. Not to prepare would put me at risk for regression, and I might go backwards on the healing path.
What are anniversary reactions? Mayo Clinic answers this question in a website article, “Grief: Coping with Reminders after Loss.” Anniversary reactions are a return of grief and pain and can strike years after a loved one has died. Birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries may make you sad. According to Mayo Clinic, anniversary reactions can ambush you. “Even memorial celebrations for others can trigger the pain of your own loss,” the article notes. Worse, your anniversary reaction may last for weeks.
The symptoms of anniversary reactions are sadness, loneliness, anger, anxiety, sleeping problems, fatigue, and emotional pain. You may re-live your loved one’s death, recall images you wanted to forget, fret over painful details, and grieve all over again. Grief just won’t let go of you.
Therese A. Rando, Ph.D. details anniversary reactions in How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies. Parental grief may subside in several years, Rando explains, and then intensify again. “All of us have an unconscious time clock within us that keeps track of anniversary dates whether or not we consciously recognize it,” she writes. This bad news is balanced by the good news that you can prepare for these reactions.
I prepared for the first Thanksgiving without my daughter. She was born on Thanksgiving Day and I thought I would spend it sobbing. Thankfully, members of my extended family rallied to help us. The family dinner was held at a different location, and members created a loving, protective circle around my husband and me. I missed my daughter desperately, but love and kindness eased my pain. I continue to prepare for Thanksgiving and the anniversary of my daughter’s death. What do I do? My plans may help you cope with your upsurges in grief.
Honor your deceased child. On the first anniversary of our daughter’s death, my husband and I held a graveside ceremony. I welcomed family members and gave them a list of our daughter’s values titled “Helen’s Legacy.” To emphasize the points, I read the list aloud. Though the twins didn’t say a word, I hoped the points would be “filed” in their minds. Thinking about my daughter’s values comforted me then and comforts me now. You may find comfort in your child’s values and interests.
Make quiet part of each day. Some bereaved parents avoid quiet to escape emotional pain. It doesn’t work. Sooner or later, pain catches up with you. Allowing yourself to feel pain helps you to heal. So turn off the background noise and think about your child. Focus on her or his talents, personality, and happy times. Remember that pain comes from love and you may find strength in the love you still have for your child.
Set a new goal. Well-meaning friends told me I would have to give up writing to raise the twins. Giving up writing would be giving up on me and, since I was unwilling to do that, I ignored their advice. Instead, I got up earlier, wrote for an hour, gave the twins breakfast, and wrote after they left for school. Months passed and the focus of my work changed from health/wellness to grief healing. Having a goal energized me then and energizes me now. If you haven’t set a goal recently, this may be the time to do it.
Let yourself laugh. People still come up to me and talk about my daughter’s sense of humor. “She could have been a stand-up comic,” a friend said. My multiple losses led to another loss, the loss of humor, and it made me uncomfortable. Finally, I realized my deceased loved ones, especially my daughter, would want me to enjoy life and laugh. I remember the first belly laugh I had after my daughter died. Laughing felt good and, as I was whooping loudly, I said to myself, “Helen, this one is for you.” Laughter releases stress, so let yourself laugh, though you are mourning.
Give to others. I live my mother’s lesson: Instead of waiting to be rescued, I try to rescue myself and help others. Giving makes me feel good. I give away lots of books, donate to meaningful organizations, mentor fledgling writers, and write for free. Volunteering in memory of my loved ones is another way of giving. You may give the gift of listening at TCF chapter meetings, grief support group meetings, and social functions.
Seven years have passed since my daughter died from the injuries she received in a car crash. During this time I accepted the cause of death, blunt force trauma, painful words to write, and more painful to say. Thanks to my mother, I didn’t waste time waiting for the good fairy, and rolled up my sleeves. I researched multiple losses, secondary losses, wrote about my journey, planned for anniversary reactions, grew closer to my husband, and cherished days with my grandkids. Day by day, I created a new life and, while it isn’t the one I thought I’d have, it is a happy life.
I’m my good fairy, you are yours, and we can plan for anniversary reactions.
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