Coping with Anniversary Grief When You Lose the Love of Your Life: 4 Tips to Navigating Through the Grief Terrain
by Dr. Bob Wright
Last summer, my beloved wife Christine passed away after a valiant battle with cancer. When you unexpectedly lose your beloved wife, your sense of loss, sorrow, despair, and disbelief, are simply immeasurable.
Heartbreak, numbness, and exhaustion beyond belief from many sleepless nights, only represent the tip of the iceberg of your personal grief experience.
I am fortunate in that I had done a lot of internal grief work prior to my wife’s death, due to the fact that my mother died when I was only seven years old. All told, it took me over 40 years to fully recover and heal from that devastating loss.
To be honest, I was able to stabilize my everyday routines within several weeks of my wife’s passing. But, I had greatly underestimated the powerful emotions that might well up inside of me, as each important anniversary celebration approached on the calendar.
Of course, I already knew that holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas might be tough, but the hardest part mentally and emotionally was realizing that at the end of the year, I faced a series of formerly happy anniversaries that we celebrated regularly as a happily married couple; but now, there was only the existential gap of sadness of being by myself-alone-without my best friend and one true love!
So, here was the sequence of date compressed anniversaries that really got me “down”: Thanksgiving Day; Anniversary date of when we first met at the United Nations as volunteers; Christmas Day; New Year’s Eve; New Year’s Day; my wife’s birthday; Valentine’s Day (Ouchie).
It was on New Year’s Eve that I first began to assess “the weight” of these important anniversary dates, especially as they occurred in such rapid succession. At several points during that period, I had to momentarily stop what I was doing–REFOCUS–so that my sadness did not intensify. As a rule, I only gave myself a 10-second “pity party.”
Over several months, I had intentionally shortened my moments of wistful melancholy, from 10 minutes down to 10 seconds. In this way, I was still able to fully acknowledge the moments when I felt truly sad, yet I could bounce back resiliently so that I could continue with my day or evening.
So, how do you successfully cope and deal with the plethora of swirling emotions you may be feeling when key anniversaries dates approach after the death of your spouse? Below are some tips you may find helpful as you work to navigate this deeply stressful and emotional grief recovery terrain.
First, you must acknowledge that you have experienced a catastrophic bifurcation: your previous life with your spouse has been shattered and no longer exists; you must grapple with the fact that your spouse is no longer physically present.
Second, expressing gratitude for the things that did go right in your life and relationship, should automatically boost your mood, or at least, slow your slide into despondency. Focusing on the tasks that must now be completed solo, allows you to rebuild your self-image as a loving and caring individual; as you simultaneously seek to respect and implement the desires and final wishes of your spouse.
Third, it’s critical to allow others who care about you to help you! This can be as simple as a friend or relative volunteering to do the laundry or wash the dishes since at key points while grieving your anniversary loss, your energy and desire to deal with everyday household chores may wane. Depending on your personality, you may have to learn a new skill especially if you’re the type that “needs to do everything yourself for yourself.” For example, if you have a broken leg with a cast and still insist “I don’t want any help getting into the tub. I’m NOT an invalid!” than learning to allow others to assist you would be a good idea.
Fourth, consider slowly re-engaging yourself with hobbies you once enjoyed or signing up for fun activities such as dancing or taking acting or photography classes. It’s important not to isolate yourself while grieving. You don’t have to go overboard with activity; the idea is to get out of the house, mingling with others while having fun.
Finally, an important aspect is coming up with new strategies to keep an even emotional keel, as key anniversary dates approach so that you stay balanced. A good way to do this is to ask yourself a few questions, such as:
*How can I focus on the positive memories I had with my spouse for this anniversary date?
* How can I reduce my stress and anxiety and avoid burnout while I’m still grieving?
* How can I reassure others who care about me and my spouse that I’m OK; and that I understand that they too are grieving this same loss-of brother, sister, cousin, etc.-but may not know what to say or do.
* How can I allow myself to experience a full range of emotions from sadness to laughter-without beating myself up or feeling guilty?
* How can I move past a sense of embarrassment or shame, if I can’t figure things out on my own, and need to get professional help?
* How can I avoid the trap of addiction by trying to self-medicate and numb myself out?
Successfully dealing with upcoming anniversaries is no easy feat especially if you had a blissful or angelic marriage partner. Remember, what you focus on and pay attention to tends to expand. Remember to focus on the good and to count your blessings.
In closing, a most important thing to remember as you grieve is that it’s important to engage in self-care after the death of your spouse.
Self-care isn’t selfish; it’s self-affirming. And, doing so will make you stronger and increase your stress hardiness. Getting enough sleep and rest as you work to recalibrate your nervous system is critically important for getting your life back on track.
Additionally, remember to drink plenty of water. Being properly hydrated is important for your overall well-being since our bodies consist of about 70% water. Taking these actions should automatically make you more resilient, placing you in a better position to mentally, physically and emotionally handle future anniversaries.
Dr. Bob, the Stress Relief Doctor, is an Executive Stress Management Wellness Coach who helps high achieving individuals and groups get ahead of the stress curve by giving them the tools they need to address and dissolve their habitual stress, anxiety, grief and chronic pain. You can contact him with your questions and see his stress management wellness coaching profile here.