Mourning & Anticipating The Death Anniversary Of Your Spouse

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crying woman hugging herself
Heartbreak

I didn’t know what to expect of the death anniversary of my beloved Ralph.

It was a year ago that my best friend, spouse, and professional partner of more than 40 years died.

I knew the exact time of day it happened and could still picture it all vividly — our last conversation, the last time he touched me, my last words to him as he passed.

All these moments were etched in my memory forever.

Anticipating — and even celebrating — the death anniversary of a dear loved one is not easy. 

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In the month leading up to this death anniversary, my grief was very active.

I wrote in my diary:

“I hate that I'm feeling so crappy after more than 11 months. This has been a tough week for me, with the anniversary of his death approaching, and then our wedding anniversary right after.

Remembering back to how happy I was the night before our wedding, and how happy I was on that day ... and to realize it's all behind me now ..." 

No more Ralph at all. Just memories of Ralph. It's so tough to lose him. I hate it — really hate it — that he isn't with me anymore, except in memories. I miss him so much!"

But my attempts to distract myself from the anniversary of Ralph's death anniversary were futile.

I yearned for an infusion of happiness in my life and tried everything from pilates to conga drum lessons, and even errands to alleviate the sorrow.

The grief was too strong, and I needed a better way to honor him — and me — on that day.

I was already that weary from the persistent grief and sorrow leading up to it, so what would the one-year anniversary of his death be like? Would it bring an even deeper emersion in pain than I’d been experiencing? I dreaded that possibility.

I prepared for the day by taking time off from work just to be by myself and think about him. I traced what happened hour by hour a year earlier.

I cried a lot during the morning of the anniversary. I made a plan to walk on the beach at the time when he died. The beach has always been a healing place for me.

A ceremonial release.

When it came to the exact time of his death, I stopped walking, looked out over the ocean, said a few words to Ralph. Then I tossed a shell into the sea as a little ceremonial symbol.

I turned to walk back to where my car was parked, and all of a sudden, I had a monumental sense of relief come over me; like a burden had been lifted.

I realized then that I'd done it. I'd gotten through the first, hardest year without him. I'd grieved Ralph very deeply and done what I needed to do. And I knew I was free to move on with my life.

This was a dramatic and unexpected experience — especially on the death anniversary. I knew immediately that I would still do more grieving, but my sense of relief from this difficult task never left.

I didn’t expect to have that kind of release, but I was deeply grateful for it.

During that first year after Ralph’s death, I'd done the best possible job I could do with the grieving, because my wonderful husband deserved it and because the loss of our relationship was so huge for me.

I also wanted to be able to get past this pain, be able to move on, and open myself up to the possibility of experiencing happiness someday again.

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Let conscious grieving be your main focus.

So, I did everything the best way I knew how to. I accomplished what I needed to at my professional job during that first year after his death, and took care of everything that needed to be taken care of around the house.

But the main focus of that year was grieving as deeply and fully as possible.

I realize now that the surprising experience of relief I had on the anniversary of his death came because of my conscientiousness as a griever.

What a beautiful gift that was! I’ve never been as pained by his death since then, and although I've continued to grieve Ralph, it's been easier, lighter, and less frequent.

I still miss him three years later, yet despite feeling significantly better now, I still wish he were with me. He offered me so much love, understanding, companionship, caring.

He was a jewel whom I was very fortunate to have in my life for more than four decades.

Can you expect to have a death anniversary release from grief as I did?

I wouldn’t know whether that’s likely or not. I’m suspicious of it, yet anniversaries are markers for us; we note them and give them significance.

It’s not entirely surprising that on the one-year anniversary of his death, I experienced a great release from the burden of grief. You might, too — or, you might not.

Everyone is different, and everyone takes a different path in their grieving process.

Every relationship is different, so what it takes to sort through the feelings of loss associated with losing a partner is, by definition, different.

But I can tell you this for certain: Conscientiousness in this process pays off. If you push your feelings aside, they'll be there to hijack you at unexpected times until you deal with them fully.

Dealing with grief isn’t a one-and-done process; it's a continual process that takes time. I found I had to go over some of the same material several times before it was processed enough to lessen its emotional grip on me.

This is not an easy job. Grieving takes strength, hardiness, fearlessness, commitment, and having at least some confidence that it will eventually come to an end.

Not that it’s ever completely over. I've heard and read this many times, and I expect it’s true. But it becomes a loss that is easier to shoulder over time.

There's a point at which you need to give yourself permission to release the grief of your loved one's death.

Do the grieving, and do it thoroughly; be intentional about it; be conscientious about it. And at some time when it feels right, give yourself permission to let it go.

It should not be seen as a marker of love that you never allow yourself to be happy again after your spouse has died. Your spouse would not want his or her death to bring an end to the happiness in your life.

When it feels right, give yourself permission to start a new chapter.

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Patty Howell, Ed.M., A.G.C., is a prolific author, developer of psychosocial education programs, and president of Healthy Relationships California, a non-profit that has taught relationship skills programs to more than 200,000 participants. She co-authored "World Class Marriage: How to Create the Relationship You Always Wanted with the Partner You Already Have" with her late husband, Ralph Jones.