At least twice every day, I drive by Lynn University just a few blocks from my home. For the past several weeks, that means I drive by the countdown to the third presidential debate that will take place at Lynn on October 22, 2012. 40. 39. 38. … 24. 23. 22. And so on. I could do without that glaring, twice-daily reminder. For me, October 22, 2012 means something quite different. It is the fifth anniversary of my husband’s death. I have my own internal countdown. I don’t need one staring me in the face day after day as a grim reminder of the reality I know all too well. This year, October 22 even falls on a Monday, the same day of the week that George died. I know I’ll work that day, as I did through much of his illness and soon after his death. As a psychologist and psychoanalyst, I find that listening to the struggles and heartaches, as well as the joys and triumphs of others, often helps remove me from the pain of my own life.
When I come home after that long day I’ll probably be more aware than usual that George won’t be there to greet me. The door between the garage and the house won’t be open. He won’t be standing there with his sparkling blue eyes and welcoming smile. There won’t be a delicious meal cooking on the stove. There will be no George on that day, just as there hasn’t been for the previous 1827 days, including the two leap days. It actually has been longer since George was able to greet me at the door, his body debilitated by metastatic prostate cancer, heart disease, and chemotherapy for almost two years prior to his death. Then I’d go to him, sitting in his chair in the living room. His eyes weren’t quite as bright, but his face still lit up when he saw me, he’s arms open, proclaiming my homecoming the best time of his day.
Do I need an anniversary to remember all this? No, not at all. George is with me every day. I remember his courage, his strength, his fortitude, and his sometimes maddening stubbornness. I remember the man who loved me with every fiber of his being, who was always my champion, always in my corner. I remember walking hand in hand along the Seine, putting up tents in Botswana (the only time in my life I ever camped), and scuba diving in countries like Palau and Yap, places I had never even known existed. He opened new worlds for me and for that I feel tremendous gratitude. But mostly I remember sitting close to him on the couch or eating on our outdoor patio. I remember the depth of our love and, yes, the indescribable pain of his loss.
There’s not one way to deal with the anniversary of a death. There’s no such thing as a right way. I know from myself, my patients, and my friends, that people handle anniversaries differently and that every anniversary is in itself, different. The one universal is that anniversaries cannot be ignored. Even if you think you have forgotten, that date remains emblazoned in your unconscious. You can distract yourself, occupy yourself in the usual routine of your life, but the anniversary remains present nonetheless. You might find yourself unaccountably anxious or forgetful or irritable, all messages from the unconscious that feelings are brewing and need to be attended to one way or the other.
I faced the first anniversary of my husband’s death with dread. I knew I didn’t want to be alone nor go on with my life as usual nor be someplace I could envision George and I enjoying old haunts or exploring new adventures. I couldn’t figure out what to do or with whom to do it. In the end I flew from Florida to Oregon to spend time with two of George’s children and then, for the actual anniversary, I went with George’s daughter and two close friends to a spa in California, something I knew the man who took me scuba diving in Yap would never have been interested in doing.
I know of two widows who found the unveiling, the Jewish ceremony that literally unveils the gravestone and marks the one year anniversary of a death, extremely helpful. For them it signified the end of the year of mourning and gave them permission to begin moving forward in their lives. This didn’t mean they stopped grieving or that they felt less connected to their deceased spouses, but rather that they could begin thinking more of themselves and their own lives. Another widow spent the first anniversary of her husband’s death reading over all the cards he had given her over the years. I asked whether she found that comforting or whether she was torturing herself. She said that it was comforting. I believed her, but could hardly imagine it. For years I couldn’t even walk by a card display without crying, without thinking about all the cards - birthday, anniversary, Valentine - I would never again give or receive.
On the second anniversary of George’s death my grief was not as acute, not as all-encompassing. But rather than experiencing this as a relief, I felt as though George was slipping away from me. I felt emptier, lonelier. Sometime later a widow said to me, “Grief is my friend.” I knew exactly what she meant. Grief itself provides a connection to the deceased. Without the intensity of that grief we feel more alone, more isolated. By the third anniversary I thought that I could venture further afield and return to my warm writing community in Washington, DC. I was incorrect. The flight to Washington on the eve of George’s death felt way too painful. Usually a calm flyer, I became increasingly distressed and had to fight to keep myself from passing out. Year four was less traumatic, spent with my husband’s grandson, reminiscing about George, the man we both loved.
And so I’m back to anticipating year five. I suspect I’ll feel more of a sense of missing, of longing for that which was and is no more. But like all other days, October 22 will last only 24 hours. It will end and I will continue on with my life – seeing patients, writing, spending time with friends. And carrying George in my heart, as always.