Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
How do I handle the one year anniversary of my daughter’s passing, which is coming up next month? She left three babies behind, and I found her in her room with the boys with her. Luckily they were sleeping. But I can’t get that vision out of my head! I cry, I laugh, I cry! I am scared of what the day of the anniversary is going to have in store for me. I am broken, confused and lost. What can I do to prepare for that terrible day?
As difficult as the anniversary of the death may be, both research and practical experience suggest that the anticipation of the anniversary may be worse, as the fear of not knowing how the day will go can spawn anxious rumination that can preoccupy us for weeks. What then, can we do to cushion the blow that the fateful date represents? In addition to cultivating self-compassion and planning to do something that is self-nurturing and soothing, you might consider some form of ritual of remembrance to mark the occasion.
Anthropologists teach us that rituals of transition, across cultures and religions, tend to include three basic elements. Adapting these to the anniversary of a death, these might include three “Re-” functions:
1. Recognition of the deceased. Consider doing something that honors your daughter: light a candle for her in a prayerful or meditative moment, write an AfterTalk letter of appreciation to her and read it aloud or post it to other readers; place a special picture and remembrance of her on your or her Facebook page. The key here is to take a symbolic step toward recognizing and perhaps circulating her special qualities as a person in a reverential or loving fashion, recruiting an appropriate audience for its performance.
2. Reconstruction of your identity as a survivor. This could involve reflective writing about who you were to your daughter as a mother, who you are now in the midst of your mourning, and who you hope and strive to be 3 years in the future, when you will have integrated this loss and found new meaning in its aftermath. By linking past, present, and future in this realistic but hopeful fashion, you can begin to create a vision statement for a changed life. Sharing this with others in a ceremonial fashion can help set an intention to live into this future in a way that might make your daughter proud of you, while also recruiting social support for the changes you are attempting.
3. Reaffirmation of the community of concern. By arranging to come together with those who know and love you and your daughter, perhaps by extending a simple invitation to participants who wish to do so to share a recollection of your daughter, a hope for you, or simply a poem or thought that in some way touched them, you place your own grief and theirs in the healing circle of your mutual concern. Perhaps a tone can be set through a candle lighting, as noted above, a shared meditation or two minutes of silence, or playing an evocative piece of music. Afterward, people could be invited to briefly speak or share, or simply to “hold the silence” respectfully for those who do. Consider creating a place in the day and the ritual for the children: even a preschooler could be invited to draw a picture for his mommy, or dictate a letter to her. Sharing a simple buffet meal in the home together following the ceremony can suggest a natural reintegration into life, and reaffirm that each of you–including your daughter–continues to have a place in a living community.
Every Thursday we publish “AfterTalk Inspirational.” We invite readers to submit their own poem, essay, or suggestions for inspirational quotes for publication. If you are a therapist you are welcome to extend this invitation to your clients as well. Please send your submission to firstname.lastname@example.org