Sunday, March 15, 2009

Anniversary Reactions

The holiest of all holidays are those kept by ourselves in silence and apart; the secret anniversaries of the heart.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Beware the Ides of March!” is a well-known phrase from Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar. The Ides were on the 15th of the month, several times in the Roman year. On March 15, 44 B.C., Caesar was assassinated. Many years later, March 15, 1964, my mother collapsed in a church service, and died two days later. This year is one when all the days line up the same way as they did 45 years ago. Friday the 13th was first, then Sunday the 15th, then Tuesday the 17th, St. Patrick's Day. That serves as a stronger reminder of life events I can never forget.

My birthday is two days before my mother's. On this date in 1991, I realized that I was exactly the same age my mother had been when she died. I could see in the mirror's reflection how very young age 36 was. My mother and Marilyn Monroe died at the same age, forever young. From that day on, I moved beyond my mother's lifespan, into years she never experienced. I no longer fear that I will die young, as she did. Today I am exactly 18 years older than my mother was on the day she died. I'm glad to be 54, and am determined to live the rest of my life fully, as long as I am here. It's a blessing to be growing older.

March 17, St. Patrick's Day, is the anniversary of my mother's death. In my small private ritual of remembrance each year, I wear something green, since I married into an Irish family, and something black, in honor of my mother. If her grave were closer to my home in Texas, her death date and her birthday would be days I might visit. I don't feel much grief any more, but I always remember her on this day.

When I talk to people who are grieving, I've seen a pattern, borne out in the literature, of an upswing of grief just before the one-year anniversary of the death. We have enough volunteers with our hospice that we are able to make calls to many family members near the one year anniversary. People tell me that they start reflecting as it approaches about all the things that happed a year ago. They review events that led up to the death, and often dread that anniversary date. Some have flashbacks or an increase in vivid dreams. Many people are surprised when I tell them that grief can increase right before the first anniversary. Sometimes just finding out that it's normal to relive those memories helps with the emotions of the time. It's not unusual to experience some grief or a time of remembering each year as the anniversary approaches.

There are many significant dates that we remember, unique to each of us. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of seeing singer Judy Collins in concert. She told us that night was exactly 50 years since the first day she got paid for being a singer. That date held special significance to her. Some of my significant dates include the date I found my faith again, the date I got engaged, my wedding anniversary, and the birthdays of each of my children. When I talk to people who are grieving, they mention their significant dates, birthdays, anniversaries, the day their loved one was diagnosed with a terminal illness. One mentioned the first day of baseball season, which she had always enjoyed with her mother. Another mentioned her AA anniversary, the date marking her sobriety. She had always celebrated it with her special someone. Sometimes we don't even realize a date is significant until our emotions rise, and we begin to wonder why.

I deal with heightened feelings this time of year for another reason besides the anniversary of my mother's death. My wedding anniversary is on Thursday, but the date brings up a lot of mixed feelings. For the past two years, my husband and I have been living apart from each other, with an uncertain future. To my husband's credit, he's brought me flowers on our anniversary for the last two years, even with his indecision about remaining married to me. We still see each other fairly often, or call, or e-mail. It's not easy to live each day wondering what the future will hold. Although being left was devastating, I have adusted to living alone, have grown from the experience, and have even found some things I like about being on my own. Someday, there may be a definite ending and another date to remember, or we may be able to put our marriage back together. The best I can do is to decide how I will live fully while coping with my circumstances. I used to think that my experience was unique, but I find in this kind of loss, too, there are many who have gone through similar situations.

Life can be a series of endings, with many leading to new beginnings. Sometimes life improves, sometimes it gets harder. We embrace the struggle, and grow deeper. And along the way, our heart remembers those we have loved, and significant days we shared with them.

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