Anniversaries of a Death Mean Different Things for Different People

Alzheimer’s Disease

Here’s a fact: my husband of 39 years died a year ago today. In truth though, my husband died years before August 2, 2020. He “died” somewhere around 2014 (if not before) when Alzheimer’s disease changed who he was and how he behaved. He was a man who died with his wedding ring on, the same ring his father wore. But, his disease robbed him of his most precious qualities: his intellect, his sense of humor, his openness to the world around him and yes, his capacity to treat his wife of then over three decades with kindness, decency, respect and non-violent behavior.

So, my husband’s death a year ago, in the middle of the Pandemic, was in a real sense a chance for him to be at peace, preserving whatever shreds of self-respect he still had intact. Diapers, incontinence, paranoia, an inability to read or eat without spilling among other items were not the hallmarks of the proud private person he once was.

It is because of my husband’s advanced Alzheimer’s disease that I did not anticipate what has happened and is happening to me on the first anniversary of his death — something this is occurring right now as I write.

I fully expected to reflect back with a modicum of pleasure, trying to recollect the better times we had, the times before the disease took its hold. I thought I would look at photos from the many albums I had created for each year of our son’s life from birth until he turned 21 and smile. I asked my now fully grown son if he wanted to spend some time today reminiscing; he declined. I didn’t expect to feel maudlin and upset. I hadn’t planned on crying. Something unexpected took over.

What Happened To Me Today

For starters, I realized that there were no “official” ways to remember someone lost during the Pandemic. The religious rituals, including a funeral and burial, did not occur. Yes, my husband was cremated, and my son and I scattered his ashes in the early winter in the places he loved most the Northeast. Usually, after a year, there is a place to visit — a tombstone, a marker, a graveyard, a place of worship. I had no such place to go. I actually hadn’t realized I needed such a place.

Instead, I woke up in my home proximate to the sea on three sides (literally) at sea (both figuratively and literally). Immediately and without previous intent, I found former notes he had left for me that I had photographed and saved on my Iphone — nasty notes in which he demanded his autonomy and his car keys and criticizing (and I assume cease) the imaginary romantic relationship I was having with one of his many wonderful caregivers.

While my son and I had taken away his car keys (they remained in the freezer although he thought they had been sent to my son), I never had an affair with the caregiver (or anyone else for that matter in the years we lived together). My husband’s perception of my having an affair with the caregiver angered him and pained him. In one note he wrote (names deleted): “It’s tragic, but your attitude toward me and your preference for your buddy, the caregiver, has been very hurtful, not on the part of the caregiver, but [because of] your own cruelty.”

What Now?

So instead of positive memories, I was in the midst of horrible memories of the many effects of Alzheimer’s disease on my husband and collaterally, on me. I called a wonderful close friend who happens to both be a doctor and had lost her first husband at way too early an age many moon ago. I asked her about death anniversaries. How did she feel way back then? How does she feel now? Surely she had seen many experiences with her patients too.

Yes, her situation was and is vastly different from mine. She lost her first husband when their child was just under a year and it occurred decades ago. I lost my husband when I had a fulfilled professional life and a grown son and when my husband had, even if you count only the healthy years, lived a full and complete life.

My friend made several observations that I am still processing but they seem to have implications far beyond today — impacting not only on how I am responding to the anniversary of the death of my spouse of 39 years but how so many individuals will manage the anniversaries of the hundreds of thousands of individuals who have died from or during the Pandemic, anniversaries of deaths that have occurred or are fast approaching.

A Friend’s Wise Observations

My friend pointed out for starters that the death of a spouse feels differently than the death of a parent. Perhaps that is obvious to most readers but she pointed out that she knew and remembered the exact date of death of her spouse but not the exact date of death of her parents, both of whom had lived long and fulfilled lives. And she had adored them both.

I thought about that. I knew the approximate date of when my two fathers (long story) passed away; I knew the season and month and in one instance the week. But the exact dates escaped me. And, through my seeking to reminisce with my son, I had assumed we both had would be experiencing same response to the death of the same person — when that wasn’t true at all. One of us lost a parent when he was full grown. The other of of us had lost a spouse.

My friend observed that, with the spouse, part of the reason for sadness (even in a difficult situation like mine where mourning the person is tough sledding) was that the death activated thoughts of dreams lost. We mourn the dreams we held of being together in old age (even if fictionalized in some sense). We mourn what wasn’t to be including seeing grandchildren in our home. We mourn the relationship we wanted (even if it wasn’t the one we had). We mourn for the images we harbored of the future and that future, at least on anniversaries, seems filled with positives (even if that did not mirror reality or exceeded what we could reasonably have predicted, namely whether the unlived future would be filled with joy).

Many children may miss dreams of relationships that never happened with the lost parent — the sharing of a wedding or a grandchild or a professional success. But, my friend’s point — and it seems so right — is that children and spouses are mourning different things, different lost dreams. Good thing I reached out to her; I’d never had a spouse die (although I certainly had “lost” my spouse which I did mourn at the height of the disease that robbed him of both his mind and yes, his heart).

My friend then observed that in addition to visiting the cemetery every year on the anniversary of the death of her husband, she took the day off from work and just used the day to reflect and exercise self-care and do whatever seemed soothing — a walk in a park, reading a good book, knitting. Rebalancing.

And then, with that observation, I realized two things: I had no cemetery to which to go and yes, I could spend the day just spending the day. I could choose how to mourn. I could recognize that we all mourn differently and that mourning lost dreams (whatever those dreams are/were) has a certain power. It is owning one’s present — the real world — and releasing those unfulfilled dreams. And if the present is filled with possibility, that is worth embracing too including new relationships filled with kindness and warmth and their own set of dreams, some similar and some vastly different.

Some Added Thoughts

I am worried, given all the deaths of late and the absence of customs and traditions and religious rituals for memorializing those who have passed away, that we are unprepared for upcoming anniversaries of those we lost. We don’t have the needed and customary anchors to guide us through the mourning process. The Pandemic has stripped us of what usually facilitates mourning. And, the deaths have been too plentiful. Many dreams have been crushed.

As we reopen schools and colleges and as we reopen workplaces, many people will be experiencing anniversaries of those who have passed away, and we are not prepared to handle how individuals will be responding. Schools aren’t trained to be centers for dealing with grief; neither are workplaces. Yet, both will be places where anniversaries of recent deaths will abound and people will be grieving, even if they appear to be doing so in private.

We need to think about this now, before students, educators, employers and employees return to where they were enrolled or working pre-Pandemic. We need to plan and prepare for how to manage the feelings, thoughts and behaviors so many individuals will have since losing a spouse or parent or relative or friend over the past 18 months. We need strategies for dealing with the dreams lost and how to help people build new dreams.

Now is not the time to “wing it” and be reactive. Instead, if I have learned anything from today’s experience with the anniversary of the death of my husband, it is that we may not respond in the ways we anticipate. We may not be mourning in ways that others have mourned in the past. We may not be feeling anchored. We may not be able to find the right way to express what is happening or to navigate forward. Our responses may surprise us.

Dreams: Past, Present and Future

To return to my friend and her suggestions: mourning is personal. There is no one way to mourn. But, we can recognize that lost dreams are hard to release and yet, dreams are what enable us to move forward too.

So, as I proceed through the day (and later work to help others in educational settings deal with their losses, something I have done in the past and will continue to do), I plan to just let this day — this anniversary day — happen, realizing the many ways in which we can mourn.

And, the lesson for us all is to be open to the possibility — the likelihood — that our educational institutions and our workplaces need to be prepared for the mourning that is to come. Mourning will be omnipresent. As I see it, it is the responsibility of those of us who lead and are involved with schools and workplaces to enable that mourning to occur and those anniversaries to happen in ways that allow people to both grieve and more forward. It is our work in the coming months and perhaps years.

Think about that: we need help ourselves and others to mourn the lost dreams and create the future dreams. Not easy. Not easy at all.

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Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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Karen Gross

Karen Gross

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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