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Significant Days in Your Grief Journey

KNOWN SIGNIFICANT DAYS

Significant days are those times of the year that mark an event, time or day that stands out for some reason. Some of these days stand out on the calendar like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, a birthday or an anniversary. Not long after my sweet mother-in-law died, my wife asked me to go shopping for my own Mother’s Day card. This had typically been my wife’s “job” every year; she bought the cards, set them in front of me and said “Here, you fill it out and send it.” However, this year she did not want to do the shopping. I knew right away that this year was going to be the first time she would not buy a Mother’s Day card for her own mother; it was just going to be too hard, too emotional. My wife knew this ahead of time and told me in her own way that this was now my responsibility.

UNKNOWN SIGNIFICANT DAYS

Other significant days may not stand out on the calendar like Mother’s Day. However, they are still significant because of an event. It may be the date that a terminal diagnosis is first heard or the anniversary of a loved one’s death.

“I just don’t understand” the spouse said to me as he sat in my office. “My wife leaves and is gone for three or four days. She doesn’t call. I don’t know where she is and when she gets back I know she has been drinking a lot. She says she loves me and is not seeing anyone else. I think I believe her, but I just want to know where she is going and what is going on. It happens every year.” She responded, “I do love you and there isn’t anyone I’m seeing. Something builds up inside and I have to get away. It’s not something I plan, it just happens. I’m sorry.”

She sounded very sincere and even began to tear up. Was there an affair going on somewhere? Did she have some type of manic episode that led her off on some sort of drinking binge? What was going on? The couple wanted help solving this mystery, healing the hurt that had been done and moving on with their relationship. As part of the assessment, we worked together on a family genogram, a kind of family tree that is drawn on paper to highlight family history and relationships between family members.

Early in the assessment we discovered that she had two sisters and one brother. She had looked up to her brother, who was several years older. He was her protector, gave advice and was everything you would want in a big brother. Tragically he had died while on a family camping trip. The family thinks he got a leg cramp while swimming out on a lake. He was quite a way out when they heard him crying for help and saw him reaching down. She and her father swam out to where he went under but couldn’t find him. It was two hours later when rescue divers found him.

Talking about this tragic event brought tears to her eyes. The couple had never talked about it in this much detail. The spouse did not know that his wife swam out looking for her brother. As in all genogram events, we ask for the date of when this happened. She gave the date matter-of-factly, a date her husband was not aware of. The anniversary of this event had been just a few weeks before, right before she had left on her drinking binge. I asked if the timing of the wife’s leaving every year was around this same time. After looking at one another as if a light bulb was going off, they both said they thought so. She said that she had never really talked about her brother’s death, and her family avoided it as well. It was too hard. Her family rarely talked about her brother and they never went on a camping trip again afterward. The wife had never fully grieved the loss of her brother, but her mind and body would not let her completely forget the event.

It is common in grief for a person to be doing well and then all of the sudden, as if out of the blue, have a really bad day. It is not until later that they remember that the day marks some significant event in the relationship to the person who died. Some days on the calendar are marked and you know they will be difficult; others are not. So how do you deal with these days, both expected and unexpected?

PLANNING FOR DAYS YOU KNOW WILL BE HARD

For the days that you can anticipate ahead of time, it is important to acknowledge them in advance and have a plan. My wife knew that Mother’s Day would be hard and told me what she needed: me to go out and get my own card. As Mother’s Day arrived we made time to talk specifically about her mother – to remember her, talk about memories and honor her mother. Afterward we had a special time for our children to honor my wife.

If you’re alone, your spouse has died and your children are gone, it may be more difficult to get together with family. You can still plan ahead of time. Mark the significant day on the calendar so that they don’t sneak up on you. Make a plan that fits with your own personality and grieving style. If you know you will need some time alone, plan for that. Schedule time to pull out old pictures, give yourself permission to cry, write a letter to your loved one telling him or her how much you miss them or anything else that you need to express. You can also go to a special place that you enjoyed together – a restaurant or coffee house – or visit the cemetery. If you think you will need someone with you as you plan these events, ask a close friend. Tell the friend why the date that is coming up is significant and that you think it will be a hard day for you. Tell them your plan and ask the friend specifically for what you need: to just be with you and not worry about talking, to share memories together or to go to the cemetery with you.

It is important that after you have made time to remember and grieve that you have a specific plan to do something else and be active for the remainder of the day, preferably with a friend or family member. Do something you enjoy with your friend: get a massage, go for walk, go shopping and allow yourself to spend a little money on something nice. Enjoy a fun movie – not something that is too serious or that will bring you down – or go get a special ice cream that you enjoy. Treat yourself! You have done some hard work planning, organizing and grieving; you have attended to your emotional self, and now it’s time to do something nice for yourself.

EXPERIENCING UNEXPECTED DIFFICULT DAYS

First, it is important to know that these days do happen and you may or may not be able to tie them to a significant event. It could be that this is just a bad day in the journey of mourning the loss of someone you love. Or, when the day comes you may remember abruptly that this is the day you met, the time of your last vacation together, the one-month, two-month or three-month anniversary of your loved one’s death, or it could be that something you see or hear sparks a memory.

Either way, it is important to remember that these days happen and you cannot prepare for them. When you start grieving unexpectedly, be sure to remind yourself that this is normal and a natural part of your grief journey, that your are not grieving incorrectly and you could not have prevented this. This is grief!

Next, give yourself permission to grieve in the moment if at all possible. If you are in a public place and can get somewhere more private for a little while, do it. If you are with others and need to be alone for a short time, politely excuse yourself. If you cannot get away right then, make time as soon as possible – at your next break or during lunch – to get away and have a good cry or do whatever you need to do. Remember that grief does not have a predictable timetable that you can anticipate. It is often like riding a wave and you have to allow yourself to ride it when it comes.

Again, after you have taken time for your grief, make some time to be with others and do something that you enjoy.

If the unexpected days happen too often for you to manage, seem to be too hard or the loss of your loved one was due to a traumatic event and you need support, please use the link on my website to send me a note or schedule an appointment.

About the Author

Ray has been a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Texas since 1993. He is also a Clinical Fellow with the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and a current member of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Ray has been working with grieving families for more than 20 years as a counselor, educator and the leader of a crisis response team.
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