Navigating the calendar while you’re grieving
Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, and other important dates can become colored by grief after someone dies.
Letting go of expectations or creating new traditions can help make certain dates easier for you.
Consider setting aside time on important dates that you dedicate solely to your grief.
If you know a particular day is going to be hard, you can always reach out and specifically ask for help from the other people in your life.
When you are in grief, certain days of the calendar are bound to be harder than others, particularly if the date comes with an expectation of togetherness. Birthdays, holidays, and the anniversary of a loved one’s death are some very common examples.
Grief is an isolating experience under any circumstances, but that sense of isolation and loneliness can be particularly exacerbated at times of celebration. If, after a loved one has died, you find yourself at a family gathering and it feels like everyone else is having fun and enjoying themselves, the difference between where they are and where you are emotionally can be really acute.
This is one reason why many people find the winter holidays particularly hard. At a time when it seems like everyone else is cheerfully singing “Joy to the World,” the inability to share in the spirit of the season can make you feel like an outsider. The same can be said for birthdays—there is an implicit pressure to be “happy” on your birthday. The word is in the song and the well wishes. But how can you possibly have a happy birthday when you’re feeling so overcome by other emotions?
The truth is, you may not be able to. And that’s OK. There is no rule that says you must be happy on your birthday, or New Year’s Eve, or any other day for that matter.
You’re not just mourning the loss of your loved one, you are mourning the way things used to be.
Holidays and birthdays are about celebrating the passage of time, about nostalgia and tradition. Each year we remember celebrations from years past: the way things were when the kids were little, the taste of Grandma’s perfect apple pie, that time you pulled off a huge surprise party. When someone dies, this normal part of celebrating becomes colored by your grief.
The absence of your loved one can feel as tangible on those days as their presence once was. You’re not just mourning the loss of your loved one, you are mourning the way things used to be. The way you used to feel; the shape, color, and size of your personal experience on these days.
It’s just another day
Unlike some other grief triggers, like significant places, objects, or habits that you can try to stay away from, it’s impossible to avoid specific days on the calendar. So you may instead want to find strategies for making them less impactful.
One way to make certain dates easier on yourself is by letting go of expectations. Things can’t possibly be the same now that your loved one is gone, so don’t hold yourself or your experience to an impossible standard. Holidays exist because people have assigned meaning to particular dates on the calendar—but that also means we have the power to take that meaning away, or to ignore it entirely.
If you are able to accept that things are going to be different, you can start to consider ways to acknowledge the day that feel genuinely right for you and wherever you are right now. Maybe your family has always done a big Thanksgiving meal, but this year you don’t have the energy or the inclination to organize anything like that.
You may not have control over the date on the calendar, but you have complete control over how you choose or choose not to celebrate. In fact, changing up traditions can become an opportunity to let go of the things you never really liked anyway. Instead of turkey and stuffing for 20, maybe you’d rather do takeout pizza for four.
If you find yourself doing anything out of a sense of obligation rather than enjoyment, consider letting it go. Even if you can’t stop December 25 or July 4 or the date of your anniversary from coming, you can just skip the celebration.
On the other hand, if you really love turkey and stuffing, what’s to stop you from eating it in April? Bakeries have birthday cakes available for purchase every day of the week. You get to call the shots. You can do the things that are typically reserved for holidays any day you want. Even every day, if you want. If frying up latkes brings you some sense of enjoyment, why not make some tonight?
Making new traditions
As you consider the ways your celebrations might change, whether it’s just once or from now on, you also have an opportunity to create new traditions, to establish a new habit or ritual that feels right for you.
If there’s a day coming up that you expect is going to be hard, consider setting aside some time on that day dedicated solely to your grief. If it feels right, lean in to the hard feelings. Don’t try to force yourself to feel anything specific, but allow them to come through if they show up. Let yourself cry or get angry if you need to.
Maybe you channeling your emotions into some form of creative expression feels like the right choice. You can write in a private journal or compose a letter to your loved one. Maybe you like to paint or play music. Use whatever outlet you need to experience whatever feelings come up in a way that feels right to you.
There are so many things that are out of your control about the experience of grief; take control where you can while honoring your feelings.
You may also want to use this day as a way to honor your loved one and bring their memory into the future with you. Maybe you want to feel closer to your loved one by doing things they used to love: visit their favorite places, listen to their favorite music, or watch their favorite movie. Maybe you want to share a story about them with a friend over the phone, with family over a meal, or even online through a dedicated post you share on social media.
If you know a particular day is going to be hard, you can also always reach out and specifically ask for help from the other people in your life. The only antidote for isolation is community, so reach out to the people you know you can rely on. A lot of the time you’ll find that they are happy to be able to help.
There are so many things that are out of your control about the experience of grief; take control where you can while honoring your feelings. Remember that it’s just one day or a couple of days. You get to spend that time however you want. And like all things, this time will pass.
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