10 Ways You Can Prepare for the Anniversary of a Loved One's Death
How can you prepare for the anniversary of a loved one's death? It can be an emotional, and often fraught, experience. Giving yourself the time and space to decide how to make it is key for your mental health.
The anniversary of a loved one’s death can be fraught with mixed feelings and tough decisions. How you choose to mark the day can be a difficult call to make, whether it’s with celebration, contemplation or even by doing nothing at all. But grief can sneak up on you when you least expect it and hinder the decision-making process as the anniversary looms.
To help you honor the person you lost in a way that honors your personal truth, where you are in the grieving process and your emotional state, look to the following tips for preparing for the anniversary. These pieces of advice will guide you through marking that first year and can continue to provide direction for those to come.
1. Give Yourself Permission to Do What Feels Right
Remember that there’s no “right” way to mark this anniversary. “Each individual deals with loss in their own unique manner, and the key thing is to respect the individual’s approach,” says Len Saunders, M.A., author of “Buddy and Bea,” which teaches children about the circle of life. “While some will do special things, such as visiting the grave with flowers and poems, others may just try to have a normal day.”
Give yourself the grace to do what feels right to you, and resist any pressure to participate in family- or friend-sponsored anniversary activities that don’t mesh with your emotional truth right now. Take agency over your grief — and any other feelings you have in the moment or leading up to it — so you can appropriately tend to them.
2. Develop a Plan
The anticipation of the anniversary may be just as hard, or even harder, than the actual day itself. Make some time to brainstorm ideas about what might feel right for you on this day and on the days leading up to it. “For some individuals, having a very structured day and going about their typical routine can provide some sense of comfort,” says licensed clinical marriage and family therapist Afton Strate. “If you aren’t sure what you will need, I suggest having some preplanned activities for the day that also allow for some flexibility to cancel if you aren’t feeling emotionally well enough to go.” With a plan in place, the day can’t sneak up on you.
3. Create Rituals
The first anniversary of a loved one’s death is a good time to establish a ritual or custom that you can continue to perform for years to come (if doing so feels right to you). “Try to find something to do that day that will help you celebrate the life of your loved one,” Saunders suggests. “For example, if your loved one enjoyed walking on the beach, try to go to the beach that day and share the moment with them via your heart and soul. If they had a favorite book or movie, experience this book or movie as well.” Know that you’re not married to whatever rituals you create. How you choose to honor this special person can, of course, shift and change as the years pass.
4. Make Time for Self-Care
Encourage yourself to do whatever it is that makes you feel happy and fulfilled, whether that means going to yoga, booking a spa day or going on a beautiful hike. “Take time for self-care like exercise, meditation, guided meditation, gratitude journaling and so on,” advises marriage and family therapist Heidi McBain, M.A., LMFT, LPC, RPT. Getting yourself in the best possible emotional place in the days or weeks leading up the anniversary will help you feel more even-keeled when the day actually comes. At the very least, it will provide emotional space for you to better deal with the feelings that will inevitably come up.
5. Identify Your Vulnerabilities
According licensed psychologist and certified bereavement trauma specialist Sherry Cormier, Ph.D., an anniversary can re-trigger feelings of vulnerability and sorrow after your loved one’s death. “Identify what these are, and develop ways to cope with these vulnerabilities,” she advises. “For example, you may have a particular vulnerability to doing something alone that you used to do with your loved one. So this would be a day to avoid that activity.” Make a list or journal about what might be triggering or upsetting for you on this day — people you might not want to see, activities you wouldn’t want to do or places you’d like to avoid.
6. Set Your Intentions
When you’re planning for the anniversary, remember that the goal isn’t to create the perfect day. Unexpected weather, a challenging interaction with someone who doesn’t know what you’re going through or even a sudden headache can throw a wrench into your day. Instead, try to focus on what’s at the heart of your efforts to remember your loved one — no matter how it turns out.
“It is also important to try to not to ‘survive’ and go on autopilot through the day, but instead to set your intentions for what you can do to contribute to being emotionally present,” Strate says. “For example, maybe your intention is service. You might choose to spend time giving back to a cause that was important to your loved one on the anniversary. When you focus on your contribution to the day, you will feel connected to that person no matter what external challenges the day brings.”
7. Seek Out Support
Having people around you who understand and can make you feel cared for is an important component of making it through the anniversary of a loved one’s passing. “These need to be people that you feel safe seeing on your worst days, who will not judge you or try to fix your uncomfortable feelings,” Strate says. “If you aren’t sure who to include, you might reference times that you have felt emotionally raw in the past and who brought you comfort.” If you’ve sought professional help for grief, making an appointment to see your therapist that day could be helpful too.
Not only is it crucial to surround yourself with support, it’s also key to ask these people directly for what you need, says professional counselor Keisha M. Wells, LPC, NCC, who has worked with grieving clients. “Often, a person grieving may expect or need support but, unfortunately, won’t receive it. Don’t assume that others will remember the anniversary date or know how to respond — grief can be a complex, yet hushed topic,” she explains.
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8. Hold Your Boundaries
Part of taking care of yourself during this time is putting yourself, and your needs for personal or emotional space, first. “This could look like being extra discerning before committing yourself to social events on the anniversary,” Strate says. “It may also be helpful to decide who you want to talk to about your loved one’s death and how you will respond if you need to end the conversation or if someone says something that you’re not interested in discussing.”
And if by chance you encounter someone who says or does something insensitive, gently challenge their misperceptions. “One time a woman said to me on the anniversary day of my husband’s death, ‘Oh, you are doing so well. I am so impressed with how you have moved on,’” Dr. Cormier recounts. “This was from a person inexperienced with loss. I smiled and said, ‘I’m trying to do well, but my grief is always with me, especially on a day like today.’”
9. Accept Your Feelings
Acknowledge that grief can bring up unexpected feelings. “I often hear people say that they struggle with accepting certain emotions that come alongside their grief,” Strate says. “You might feel feelings of jealousy, anger, fear or maybe even joy, and it can be challenging to accept those feelings. The feelings themselves are not inherently bad or wrong. This is a great opportunity to utilize tools to calm down or express your feelings in a healthy way while also accepting those feelings how ever they come.”
Kerry Phillips, who was was widowed six years ago at 32 years old when her husband died unexpectedly, says that guilt, in particular, can be an uncomfortable, hard-to-shake emotion. “Remember that grieving doesn’t mean there can be no laughter, no happiness, no joy,” she says. “We can still live while grieving. Don’t feel guilty for the happiness that starts to return to your life. You honor a spouse, friend or relative who is deceased by making the most of each moment.”
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10. Pinpoint the Gift
Finally, use this anniversary day to continue to appreciate the positive impact this person has made on your life. When all else fails, focus on the gift you received from the time you had with your loved one. “Notice how you continue to receive the benefits from this gift, even though the person is absent,” Dr. Cormier advises. “For instance, my father wrote poetry, and one of the continuing gifts I receive even though he has passed is the love of poetry he instilled in me. On the anniversary of his passing, as well as on Father’s Day, I reread his poetry and also read poetry of my favorite authors.” While your longing for that person’s presence will never fade, neither will your loved one’s impact on your life.
What Do YOU Think?
Have you experienced the death of a loved one? How do you personally prepare for the date your loved one passed away? Share your experience in the comments!