By Brad Hearst
Throughout our life we have many important dates in our lives known as anniversaries. We have wedding anniversaries, class reunions and birthdays that are all dates that represent a positive memory (depending on your age). One anniversary that definitely does not come along with positive memories is the day you lost a loved one by suicide. The first is by far the hardest one to deal with and each following comes with an array of emotions that can be crippling. Grief is a journey that takes time, patience and a level of self-awareness that is difficult to handle.
As I write this specific blog post my own anniversary is still a few months away. For myself it will be five years since my brothers passing. I remember the first anniversary as vividly as I remember the day of his passing. I attended a walk that supported an organization dedicated to the prevention of suicide. Both my in-laws and parents walked along side me. It was an absolute perfect summer day in June. The intent of the walk was to be around others that had been impacted to feel a sense of belonging and understanding. It certainly supplied those structures, but I was mentally and physically unable to derive any real emotions from the event other than pain.
The organization that put on the event was certainly not to blame. They did everything they could to make the event as special as possible, but I was simply not ready for that level of interaction. I went home afterwards and slept for nearly four hours. My mind was trying to comprehend the fact that my brother had been gone for a year now. It felt as though I cried a tear for every minute that had passed over the last year on the mile walk that morning. The emotional toll it took on me was more than my body could accept so sleeping was the only natural course of action I could take.
Looking back now, there may have been a thousand people at the walk but I’m not sure I spoke to a single one. Much like the day my brother passed, the day felt like I walked in a cloud. This cloud was composed of anger, frustration, confusion, sadness, and blame.
I first felt anger at my brother for forcing me to be at an event such as this. I was filled with frustration because I saw the pain on the face of other survivors that were much further down their journey through grief than I was and knew I had a long road ahead of me. Confusion eventually crept in to my head in the form of questions. Why would so many people choose to end their life by suicide? What was so bad that they couldn’t continue on? Like anyone would expect sadness filled my heart because I had just spent an entire year without being able to speak to my brother. One year without inside jokes, stupid text messages and hearing him simply say, “I love you bro” as we said our goodbyes. Which of course led me to begin to blame myself again for his passing. If I had just been more supportive. If I had just been a better brother, he would still be here.
Just thinking about those feelings again gets me wound up. Sure, five years may have passed now but each anniversary feels a lot like that first one. I still feel the anger, frustration, confusion, sadness and blame. I’m not sure they will ever go away. The rawness of each one fades a tiny bit with each year. If I told you it got easier it would be a bold-faced lie. I would be doing a disservice to you and your grief process. Easier isn’t the right word for this scenario. A better phrase would be, it gets less incapacitating.
Keep in mind since that first anniversary I have spent nearly every day for the last four years talking about it extensively with other survivors. That communication has allowed me to work through my grief process at a much more rapid pace than a lot of the survivors I know. For many survivors it may still be incapacitating. If you aren’t focused on your own grief it is going to delay the ability to be active in a world without your loved one and elevate the impact each anniversary has on you as an individual.
A major difference from the first year to now is that I am able to smile at the good memories. I can laugh at the time my brother stole food off my plate at dinner after I warned him if he took another piece of chicken, I was going to spray him with the gigantic bottle of hidden valley ranch sitting by my side at the table. Being the antagonist that he was he quickly took another piece of chicken. Being a man of my word, I stared him down like Clint Eastwood and quickly grabbed that ranch bottle and lit him up like the fourth of July. Ranch went all over him, me, the walls and even the vaulted ceiling fifteen feet up. While we laughed at each other, my mother sat across the table with a look on her face expressed a level of disappointment beyond her years.
That memory makes me chuckle now just thinking about it. I didn’t usually go to such extreme measures but when my little brother challenged me, I always stepped to the plate with a stern rebuttal. There is no way at that first anniversary I could have possibly even recalled this memory. It was as if my mind was unable to focus on anything other than the pain.
I’m not writing these words to tell you that you need to sulk in your own misery at the first anniversary. If you are at a point where you are able to smile, I would greatly encourage you to do so. I wish I could have had that ability by the first anniversary. What I am saying is it doesn’t matter where you are at because where you are is right where you should be. Spend the entire day in bed or go explore the world. Be angry at the world or smile as you walk through it. Share memories with family or keep it bottled in for that day. Your grief is your grief and no one else’s. You get to choose where you are at with your grief and how you will react to it each and every day. No one can tell you what you are doing is right or wrong.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it the rest of my life, “Your grief is as unique as the fingerprints on your hands. It is your journey and no one else’s.” Remember, the first anniversary won’t be easy but the remaining will gradually become less incapacitating. You will be able to enjoy the positive things in your life with time. The hate and anger will gradually turn to less painful memories eventually bringing a smile to your face. While you may not be able to give forgiveness at the first anniversary or the tenth that’s okay, you’ll get there eventually. After all, my mother still hasn’t forgiven us for the ranch stain on her ceiling, but I know someday she will. So, don’t be too hard on yourself this anniversary.