My brother died on a highway. I have often thought about traveling to the location where he spent his last moment alive. I am unsure whether I will actually do it. I don’t know when I would go, what I would do there, and what the experience would mean to me.
What I do know is that I have a choice. I can choose to go, or not to go, depending on what I decide serves me best.
Places are one of several types of grief triggers I’ve experienced. Sometimes, you can opt to avoid a difficult place. In my case, I can completely avoid ever going to the place where my brother died if I decide that is best for me. I have a harder time avoiding the place where my husband gave me the news about my brother, since I drive or walk past it nearly every day, but I still have some measure of choice around my exposure to that place. Harder still to avoid, for people who lose loved ones they lived with, is one’s own home – although some make choices that help them cope such as changing the inside of a home or moving altogether.
Things are another trigger, but as with places, we bereaved persons have some choice around our exposure to them. Depending on what we want, we can keep things close – wear an item of jewelry, display a photograph, hold a shirt – or put them away. We can even give things to someone else or discard them completely if we decide that suits us best.
Then there are dates. Dates are different. Not a single living human being can escape encountering a certain date when it comes around on the calendar.
Birth dates. Death dates. Anniversaries. Holidays. Family birthdays. Dates that are special to a person or a family for any of a number of reasons. Each of these will arrive, reliably, once a year. Although reactions vary with each unique person and situation and can change over time, significant dates often prove tough to navigate.
How, as time marches inexorably on, can we face these dates as they come upon us? Although we cannot set aside, give away, or avoid them, we can choose how we spend them.
Ways to spend a difficult day are as varied and unique as the individuals who choose them. Some people make big plans, some keep things quiet. Some want to share the day with a group of friends and family, some prefer to be alone or with just a couple of people. Some choose specific actions to honor their loved ones, and others leave the day open to see what unfolds. Some eat foods or do activities their loved ones enjoyed. Some write letters to their loved ones. Some make no plan at all and try their best to have the most average day possible.
When I’m making my way through a tough day, I find solace in telling myself that time will move along second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, and the day will come to an end as every day does. The measured, steady movement of time feels reliable to me now as few other things do.
When a challenging day lies ahead, you have choices. Think it over, talk about it with those close to you, perhaps ask other bereaved people what they’ve tried. Find a plan that feels right, or at least feels possible – and try it. Later, ponder whether it gave you what you needed. Would you do it again? If it didn’t work as well as you had hoped, consider revising your plan for the next time. You are almost certain to have a chance to change what you do as the years go by, and different choices may serve you at different times. Perhaps thinking about future opportunities to do something different will give you strength as each year brings you face to face with this date yet again.
I’ll leave you with one more thought about these tough dates. I find a small bright gift in them – the reminder of the presence of someone I love. The birthday, the holiday, the anniversary wouldn’t be challenging if the person I miss weren’t in my mind and my heart. As hard as it can be to get through such days, I treasure the evidence that I continue to travel with those I’ve loved and lost.