If you’ve lived through loss or trauma, you know the ways that anniversary sneaks up. You may also have noticed that your body will adapt to the quietly advancing grief, before your brain even took note of the calendar.
For me, that happens in February.
It was five years ago this month when we lost Emily, my husband’s twin sister, deeply loved by so many. She’d been sick a long time and outlasted all predictions after beginning hospice care. I didn’t think the pain of our certain imminent loss — phone call, suitcase packing, three-hour drive, Rosary, funeral, burial, funeral lunch, and aftermath — would hurt quite as much. After all, we had seen it coming for weeks and months, slowly creeping in over the course of years. But I could not have been more wrong. Loss is the deepest of pains, and no planning ahead will change that.
As it turned out, five Februarys ago, we were also embarking on a strange year that would become heap piled with traumas we never could have guessed. We have healed a lot, and our life has mercifully moved forward with growing kids and the passage of time.
But each February I notice that my body remembers what my mind doesn’t. I don’t quite feel myself. I am irritable, emotional, or unfairly critical. Maybe draggy, foggy, or oddly sleepy. And it never makes sense — until I notice the calendar.
A year ago around this time, I was chatting with an older woman whose husband had passed away 21 years prior, and she recalled the same. Even now, her body signals the approaching anniversary of loss before she realizes that date is coming soon, usually a week or so away.
As my friend Shawn once wisely said to me, “The mind doesn’t always remember, but the body never forgets.” My professional therapist calls this the body’s wisdom — that our body will show us what it needs, without fail — often well before our brain even catches on.
But I’ve learned these anniversaries that knock us down, year after year, are seasons.
This is good news — and reason for hope.
Nature’s seasons last for a while, but they always end. And the transition of seasons sweeps us into a continual adjustment — clothing, activities, meals, routines, rituals. Both of of these realities point the way forward for anyone who is grieving.
Last February, with a nudge from my therapist, I made a list of what feels good or nurturing in this difficult season. Returning to it today reminded me how to proceed as the season of grief returned again.
- Slow down, reducing unnecessary commitments and lowering (my typically too-high) expectations.
- Pray, read, and doodle more.
- Carefully limit the inputs and outputs of social media.
- Put exercise and activity goals (and related Apple Watch reminders) on hold.
- Enjoy meals with my family a bit more, homemade or not.
- Allow tears and laughter equal space and time, without trying to understand.
- Snuggle in and watch as many episodes of the Great British Baking Show as I want.
Day by day, I can make peace with the anniversary ache that continues to surprise me. And if I slow down with intention – resist the urge to bob and weave to avoid the discomfort — I can make peace with those unexpected fluctuations in mood and energy. I can navigate the days that feel completely upbeat until suddenly and without warning I need to stop, close my eyes, and be very still until I feel myself again. And I can rest in the certain knowledge that seasons always pass with time.
Five years in, February is a month of big feelings – and grace and mercy – on repeat.
It’s messy. It comes, and then it goes.
And through it all, God is good.
If grief is hovering in your life right now, or you expect it will be soon, please know that you’re in good company. Stay connected to people who care about you.
If you have a loved one going through grief, trauma, or an anniversary of either, you have the power to make a caring difference. Here’s a great article to start you off in the right direction, with specific, simple, and powerful steps you can take to provide real and lasting support.