It doesn’t matter if it’s one week, one month, one year, or one decade after you have lost a loved one. There are days where grief takes over. Some are expected – the anniversaries, the strolls down memory lane… and others are random, they hit you out of the blue.
Today is an anniversary. My dad’s birthday. This year (and most years) it’s a happy grieving day. A day focused on memories, legacies, and sharing the love and light that my Dad was. But sometimes it’s not a happy grieving day – it’s of the consuming you whole, can’t breathe, can’t function, variety. And when it is, we deal with that.
But today, we will talk about Grief. And some simple steps to take, to help heal your Heart on these anniversaries that are inevitable. It’s better to recognize them, celebrate them, deal with the fallout (if any), and learn more about grieving and ourselves in the process.
Let me share what I do on a day like this… Birthdays are the easiest place to start, because in many ways they’re the happiest. They are the time where it’s easy to close your eyes and see the memories of birthdays past. To smile and reflect on all of the joy that you’ve shared.
One thing I do is imagine that I can call my dad on the phone… So this morning I sit in bed and imagine that I am calling my dad to wish him a happy birthday. I know exactly what he would say, “I don’t have birthdays!”… and then I would argue with him, saying his driver’s license or birth certificate would claim otherwise… and he would argue back saying that he stopped having them fifty years ago… and I would say, “well happy 29th birthday then!”… and he’d guffaw.
He was the only person I know that could pull off a “guffaw”.
The next thing I do is play a song that reminds me of my dad. On this day, I play “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”. A song that has many reasons why it’s “his” song. I get this out of the way early on because it has a surprisingly cathartic effect. The tears pour out of me and I sob uncontrollably, but the tears are a healthy mix of happy and sad. Happy memories mixed with heartbreaking sorrow. Tears have the power to heal – I remind myself of that as I let myself just cry. No reason to hold back any single tear.
Next is clearing the schedule. This has actually been done ahead of time. I’ve become a master at recognizing rhythms in my life and I know that it’s a ridiculous thought to plan work, appointments, or events on these big “grieving” days. Now, sometimes that’s unavoidable – last year I had an MRI, a board meeting, and a grant deadline all on this same day. To say “it didn’t go well” is an understatement… In fact the big Emotional Breakdown of 2017 happened shortly after that… This year, I have nothing planned, nothing on the agenda, I’m taking extra care of myself today. Quiet, alone, reflective time.
With time in my day, I make a point of going down memory lane. Why not? My eyes are already swollen and puffy from the cathartic cry of the morning. Go hard, or go home? Isn’t that the motto? No, seriously… strolling down memory lane is guaranteed to bring on the tears, and sobs, and sometimes that overwhelming grief tsunami. But, over time I’ve also seen how healing that is. It’s honouring the person you’ve lost in one of the most loving ways possible. Photos take you back to those precise moments in time. The best photos bring out the five senses… hearing my Dad’s laughter while looking through photos rips open my heart, every single time. Smelling the Old Spice, and feeling the familiar softness of his striped western shirts while leaning against his shoulder, sitting side by side on the couch… I am so grateful for my introverted, lonely teenage-hood every time I look through those photos.
You see, I spent my high school years at home. Every weekend. Except for a handful in grade 12 where I was working and branched out into hanging out with some other friends from my class. All of those weekends, where teenagers are usually gone to their friends, or consumed with extra-curricular activities – I spent at home. I was so shy, so introverted, but I loved being with my mom and dad. We played Trivial Pursuit (my dad was always my lifeline), and so many games of cribbage. I kicked my Dad’s butt at chess. We watched Hockey Night in Canada every single Saturday and NBA games every single Sunday. We challenged each other to Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. We watched the news. Three rounds of it. Every. Single. Night. There’s a reason I aced “Current Events” and “Political Cartoons” in high school.
So, I play out some political and global conversations we would have. My dad was the smartest, most informed person I have ever known. Until I met my husband. Mike quantifies every single part of that trait, and I adore him to one zillion pieces, even when I want to strangle him for knowing 10 times more than me on any given issue, rendering my argument useless.
History repeats itself.
Some birthdays I visit my dad’s grave. But others I don’t. I struggle with this piece of the puzzle because I don’t believe that’s where his spirit is… I’m pretty sure he’s hanging out by the river at the homestead where I grew up. My mom still lives there. I was there yesterday and said a brief “hi” to my dad as I looked at the river, but the -30 degree weather stopped me from chatting any further. We talk more when the robins come out in the spring and I’m planting my garden. We talk so much in the spring, from my garden, that I’m a little concerned my neighbours are going to send me to the looney bin.
My favourite part of this day comes at supper time. Our oldest is the only one of our kids who got to know Grandpa Hank, and she only got to know him for the first 10 months that we fostered her (5 years old). One of the things I’ve learned to be grateful for is that we lived two hours away that year before my dad died. You see, we spent at least one weekend a month sleeping over at Grandma & Grandpa’s house. Not just a quick weekend visit, but a whole weekend sleepover. So although Cass didn’t get to know her Grandpa Hank for very long – she sure did get to know him well. He called her “Squirrely” (he had a nickname for all of the grandkids) and she knew everything about skinny pancakes, Grandpa sleeping in the sun on the floor, riding in the backhoe, and even the secret bacon recipe (ssshhhhhhhhhh….. don’t tell anyone).
So, today at supper time we have Grandpa Hank’s supper. Even the younger ones know all about this now. As soon as I said, “hey tomorrow is Grandpa Hank’s birthday!” Lincoln (6 years old now, 2 months when Grandpa Hank passed away…) said “Yay! We’re having those funny pancakes and secret bacon for supper, right?”
Traditions matter. And traditions that honour the loss of a loved one matter even more. With Lincoln we share memories of Grandpa holding him for the first time, and him being born on Grandpa Hank & Grandma Ellen’s anniversary and them saying it was the best anniversary gift they ever received. We tell Lincoln the story about Grandpa Hank calling him Edsel and the story behind that. With Savannah, I don’t have those memories, those things to share. But we keep her in the memory loop 100%, feeling pretty sure that Grandpa Hank would call her Vanna and crack Wheel of Fortune jokes. She also knows all about the “funny” skinny pancakes and why her mom talks to robins.
Rounding off the day, I know that I’ll feel exhausted even though I’ve done nothing physically. Emotional exhaustion is its own breed and deserves its own respect. So I’ll take some more time. Maybe I’ll have a hot bath. Because I know that would drive my dad crazy. “Washing in dirty water…” – and driving my dad crazy used to be one of my favourite pastimes. Maybe we’ll “cheers” with a glass of wine or a rye and coke just for the heck of it.
Dad, I miss you….