Death anniversaries can be brutally painful milestones. Here are some reasons why, and some strategies for coping.
This entire column, not just this entry, merits a content warning. I write about suicide, depression, post-traumatic stress, and other serious topics. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone you trust, establish care with a therapist, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988), or go to your nearest emergency room. Please stick around. We need you.
Our bodies mark time, whether we’re conscious of it or not. ER nurses dread the wildness that full moons bring. Manic-depressives are more prone to mood instability in the spring and fall. And as the first anniversary of my son’s suicide approached on September 12th, I started to fall apart.
I should’ve been better prepared. As a psychiatrist, I’m accustomed to patients telling me they struggle with death anniversaries of those they love. But it’s one thing to hear about it, another to live it.
Here’s how it played out for me.
By late spring and early summer, my grief had softened. I still thought constantly of my son Josh and his absence, but the several-minute outbursts of sobbing were much less frequent. On the Sadness-O-Meter, from a previous 10 out of 10, the needle was now hanging out at a 7. My concentration improved, and some former interests were returning, enough that I even wrote a couple of movie reviews.
All of that changed in August. Everything developed sharp edges. My concentration and ability to socialize evaporated. Anything more than pushing through work and interacting with my wife and children went by the wayside. My wife Jessica and I had our biggest fight in years, thanks to my irritability.
Everything was a trigger. TV shows became unwatchable if they touched on suicide or child death. Photos of my son were stabbingly painful. It became unbearable to listen to music he loved.
My guilt returned with a vengeance. How did I miss the warning signs? How could I be so oblivious to his decline? I had my first panic attack in 15 years.
The prospect of enduring and existing without Josh felt dreadful, untenable. My suicidal ideation intensified to worst-of-my-lifetime levels. Even when I wasn’t actively suicidal, I began playing chicken with the Grim Reaper, crossing the street like Moses parting the Red Sea, taking risks on hikes I normally wouldn’t.
Yes, I was a mess. The fact that I’m writing again is an indicator that I’m better, saner. But before I talk about how I got through, let’s consider why anniversary reactions occur.
Time is in our bones
Even if clocks and calendars didn’t exist, we humans would still exist in time. Hormone and neurotransmitter levels change across a single day. As sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder and Bipolar Disorder can attest, our moods shift with the seasons. Whether or not we put Xs through days on a wall calendar, we register time’s passing.
This awareness only amplifies with grief. When August arrived, I was barraged with a series of lasts. Around this time in 2021, Josh and I saw our last movie together, dined out for the last time, competed in our last evening of pub trivia. For the last time, I smelled his ramen and corndogs heating in the microwave, waved to him as he walked to work. These final memories amplified the ache and emptiness felt by Josh’s absence.
Unlike the first months after he died, I didn’t have the emotional bubble wrap of shocked numbness. Completing a full year without Josh solidified the reality that he’s gone for good.
So, how to cope with grief anniversaries? There is no “one size fits all” for grief, of course. Your anniversary reaction may not be as intense as mine. No doubt, the fact that Josh’s death was unexpected and traumatic amplified my emotions. What helped me may not benefit you.
With those caveats in place, here are the things that helped me survive the nearly unbearable and find solid ground again. First, I learned not to go it alone. I’m not sure I’d still be alive if it weren’t for the safe space of conversations with my dear wife, our kids, and our suicide support group. I had weekly sessions with my therapist, to shore up my coping mechanisms and to discern whether I needed inpatient care.
We carry this faulty, destructive notion that if we ask people for help, we’re being a burden to them. Don’t believe it.
Anniversary grief can be exhausting, so I had to be unafraid to say no. I took a break from writing this column. I didn’t have the mental reserve to be dungeon master for my D&D group, so we stayed on hiatus. Normally, work is an escape for me, but I was ready to take mental health days if necessary.
When most things feel overwhelming and triggering, distract yourself. I played more video games from August to October than I have in years. I couldn’t handle dense works of fiction or nonfiction, so I lost myself in graphic novels. Normally, my personal motto is director Akira Kurosawa’s “to be an artist is never to avert your eyes,” but most days, I needed to intentionally look away.
Most important for Jessica and me, we left town for the week leading up to Josh’s death anniversary. We needed to shed our work responsibilities and simply tend to our grief, so we hopped a ferry to Vancouver Island. We slept late. We talked about Josh and cried. We ate well but not excessively. We lost ourselves in the wild beauty of old-growth rainforest, the sound of raven chatter and pounding surf, the sight of bears.
As we distracted ourselves, we also engaged in rituals of remembrance. Since Josh’s two siblings live on the opposite end of the country, we scheduled a FaceTime visit on September 12th. We checked in with each other, spoke of our grief, and shared favorite memories.
It was important through these two months to keep practicing good self-care. I still went to bed and woke up at the same times. I ate three meals each day. Even though my body sometimes felt leaden, I tried to spend some daily time walking outdoors. I drank only in moderation.
This first death anniversary taught me the importance of staying flexible. In Megan Devine’s It’s OK That You’re Not OK, she writes of grief as an experiment. If something isn’t beneficial to your wellbeing this week, discard it and try something else.
In the months immediately following Josh’s suicide, listening to his favorite band Nightwish and looking at photos of him helped me stay connected to him. As September 12th approached, these once-helpful things turned overwhelmingly painful. A change in my coping strategies was essential.
With the hard wisdom of this first anniversary, I’m hopeful I can be prepared for the next ones, that I won’t be ambushed by the same intensity of emptiness and despondency. In a helpful conversation with a friend who lost her father to suicide six years ago, she told me she’s come to view these anniversaries as times to visit with him. I like that notion.
Lastly, it does get better. Other suicide survivors have told me that anniversary reactions diminish with time. I love that notion.
Two months later, life has flavor again. I laughed out loud with an audience at a cineplex. I explored a new city, 25 miles by foot during a splendid weekend in Vancouver. I delight in the daily arrival of jays into our front yard, minutes after I sprinkle peanuts there every afternoon.
I still think about Josh, all the time, but my grief is softer again. I can laugh and cry over my memories of that beautiful kid. I can listen to his favorite music without falling apart. I feel the both/and, backward/forward of grief: I miss my son profoundly, but I enjoy moments and create meaning in the present, too.