Hello fellow grievers,
My name is John and I have been a volunteer at HeartLight for about nine months.
Today I want to talk about getting through the first year after the death of a loved one, in particular at times of holidays and anniversaries. My wife Marilyn died on July 23, 2022, so I have just been through my first year without her. While I am suffering the pain and loss of a spouse, the loss of anyone, be it a parent, child, sibling, or friend impacts the first year in a way that is unimaginable and very difficult to live through. I don’t mean to imply that the second or third or fifth years are easy, but all I can relate to at this time is the first year. And I want to emphasize that I am not giving advice, only relating what has helped me this past year. We all have our own way of dealing with the tragedy of losing someone we love.
Soon after my wife died I spent a lot of library time reading books and articles about grief. While I had grieved the death of family members in the past, this was different because I was with Marilyn for two-thirds of my life, had two children, and we had built a lifetime of memories. So my grieving was more intense and painful compared to my other losses.
One thing that I learned fairly early on is that “I could run but could not hide” from my grief. Initially I ran as hard and as fast as I could, trying to be busy, probably drinking a little too much, not acknowledging what I was going through. I soon realized that avoidance was not helping; in fact, it probably made things worse in the long run. So I eventually made the decision to face up to my grief and handle it as best I could.
Marilyn died three days before our 53rd anniversary, and I was so numb that I didn’t know what I was doing. So I will jump to Thanksgiving as the first major holiday/family event after her death.
Shortly before Thanksgiving I attended a lecture entitled “Surviving the Holidays” at a local church. A number of helpful ways were discussed to help get through Thanksgiving (and Christmas) but two that come to mind are 1) have a Plan B and 2) don’t be afraid to say no. The Plan B suggestion relates to what you can do if you are uncomfortable at a party or gathering or just being with others. In essence it relates to having a plan to gracefully remove yourself if you feel you just don’t belong, e.g., drive yourself so that you are not dependent upon someone taking you home. I used the “don’t be afraid to say no” approach when I was invited to a Thanksgiving party where I only knew a few people; I knew I would not be comfortable so I just said no, and I was honest about the reason.
I have used these suggestions at times other than holidays, and I have had no regrets about turning down an invitation when I was not mentally or emotionally prepared for being with others. I found that, while it is important to be honest with others, it is more important to be honest with myself.
I made up my mind to go into Christmas, and not avoid it, as best I could. I did not put up any decorations. Marilyn absolutely loved everything about Christmas, from outdoor decorations to cooking to music to shopping, especially for our six grandchildren. I’m not into cooking, but did continue to enjoy the music, very often thinking of my wife while I was listening or trying to sing along. Regarding the grandkids, I took them out shopping as Marilyn usually did; I let them choose what they wanted (within limits, of course!) and gave them the money to pay for the presents. But I told them they could not use them until December 25th. Christmas 2022 was certainly very different and not nearly as joyful as in the past, but by not ignoring the holiday I was able to get through it and enjoy it as best I could, and I know my family took a cue from me.
Over the last few years New Year’s Eve celebrations have been spent with just family and that is how I spent it this past year. Once the clock struck midnight in Times Square I had a glass of wine and said goodnight.
On Easter, like Christmas and New Year’s, I was with my family. As with Christmas I decided to make the best of it. I knew most of the people at the gathering, so I spent a lot of time talking to them. This holiday was not as difficult as Christmas, so I could tell I was feeling a little bit better about being with others.
Then came the 30 day “month from hell” which included my birthday (June 28), Marilyn’s birthday (July 3), the date of her death (July 23), and what would have been our 53rd wedding anniversary (July 26). At the beginning of this period all I wanted to do was stay in bed, pull the covers up over my head, and not wake up until August 1. Of course, this was against my “don’t run, don’t hide” mantra. So I lived each day during this period not just with sadness but, except for the day of her death, with gratitude (I obviously felt no gratitude on the first anniversary of her death. I spent a good part of that weekend feeling sorry for myself and not doing much of anything, but I gave myself permission to do that). Gratitude for all the years that we each had on this earth (77), gratitude for all the years we had together as husband and wife (53), gratitude for our two children and six grandchildren. Of course there were tears, tears over not having her with me and our family; tears over how much I, and we, missed the love she showed every day of her life; tears over not having someone who I could confide my worst fears to and share my joys with. But through those tears I was able to cherish the memories that had been part of our lives for all those years. And I was grateful once August 1st came.
Of all the days I have written about I have to say the one year anniversary of her death and our wedding anniversary were the most difficult to get through. I almost think I set myself up for that; I started thinking about those days in advance and worked myself into a state of despair. I forced myself to be with family and friends on those days, and that did help. The fact that her death and our anniversary were only three days apart did not give me any time to recover between the two days.
One of the suggestions that is discussed in one of the HeartLight grief support groups, which I attended, is to keep a journal. This certainly helped me get through this past year. In it I write what I am grateful for that day, it doesn’t have to be anything major. And then I write a few sentences to Marilyn, telling her what I did that day, how much I miss her, what the grandkids are doing, etc. Doing this makes me feel closer to her, and I try hard not to miss a day, even if I only write a couple sentences. My journal writing was certainly a big help during the difficult 30-day period I spoke about.
Another suggestion from the support group was to put together a memorial. My memorial to Marilyn is not fancy; it consists of a box to which I have added various mementos and remembrances of Marilyn, such as one of her favorite books, her passport, pictures, something from the grandkids, etc. Every now and then I may take something out and replace it with a new item.
Because Marilyn’s ashes are buried only 10 minutes from our house I am able to visit her frequently, sometimes a couple times a week; I don’t stay for long, maybe 5-10 minutes. But as in my journal writing I tell her how I am, what I have been doing, how the grandkids are, etc. As with my writing I feel closer to her when I am with her at the burial site.
In addition to volunteering at HeartLight I am a volunteer at a few other organizations. This has helped me get outside of myself, especially when I am helping others. I am able to take my mind off my troubles and focus on supporting others who are going through difficult times.
I mentioned grief support groups. I have attended separate groups at HeartLight and at a church in Centennial. For me the benefit has been sharing my story out loud, even to strangers, and listening to their stories. While we are all unique, and our grief is unique, there are some common emotions that run through all that I, and we, have shared.
Even before I started attending grief support groups I saw a bereavement counselor at the hospice that Marilyn was in for the last two days of her life (she was in home hospice). I have continued to see this counselor every month or so since her death. Without this counselors support, understanding and encouragement I would not be where I am today. She reminds me that I have had to do “all the heavy lifting,” but without her presence in my life I don’t think I could have done the lifting.
Before closing I want to talk about another difficult day but at the same time probably the day that brought me the most gratitude during this year, and that is the day of Marilyn’s memorial service, a “Celebration of Joy.” We waited two months to have the service to give out of town/country family and friends to plan to travel to Colorado. We had the service at a local funeral home. While there were times when I cried, the stories that people told about my wife, how she impacted their lives and how much she supported them through hard times, made it one of the most meaningful days of my life. It made me realize even more that Marilyn was the best gift God gave me.
And now I am at the beginning of a new year, my second year without Marilyn. The pain, loneliness and sadness are still there, and I know they will always be there. But the emotional clouds are not as dark, nor are they there 24/7; I am able to laugh along with the tears; I can express gratitude for the good things that are happening to me and my family, and especially for Marilyn’s presence in my life for so long. I can smile, and even laugh, when I think about Marilyn, our life together, and the memories that will always be a major part of me, no matter how many more years of life I have.
My hope is that, however long it has been since you lost your loved one, you will be able to get through your grief and recognize there are still people and things in your life that can create meaning and bring you happiness and joy. And these are the things that your loved one would want for you.
Your fellow griever,
Written by: John Dietrich