I’ve been told several times that one of the hardest aspects of the first year after a loved one dies is surviving each holiday, birthday, and anniversary without them for the first time. I have now made it through my late husband’s favorite holiday, Halloween; Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s; and his birthday, earlier this week. The entire month leading up to Halloween hit me hard (I blogged about it here), and then Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas felt relatively easy.
New Year’s Eve and January 1 were surprisingly tough. Entering a new year that Tom will never know or be part of felt like closing a door on him, like officially declaring him part of my past. He will never know about my trip this summer to Europe or about the memoir I am writing. He won’t be laughing with me the next time the dogs do something goofy. His favorite shirt after his stroke had a picture of the Jeff Bridges character from The Big Lebowski and the quote, “Life goes on, man.” That thought ran through my mind all day on January 1. Life does go on. I am still here, sifting through the weird bureaucracy and joy of life. The thought was simultaneously heart-wrenching and comforting.
For his birthday this week, I was originally going to invite his mother and son and my daughter to join me for a little remembrance at his bench, but COVID exposures scuttled that plan. Instead, I visited his bench with one of our dogs twice, posted a remembrance on Facebook, and created a Facebook fundraiser for one of his favorite charities, the Denver Dumb Friends League. I also attended a remote grief support group meeting. I theoretically worked that day, but I kept my camera off during meetings and got little done. I spent most of the day scrolling through photos and videos of him on my phone and ipad, talking aloud to him, and wandering around the house touching things that remind me of him—his yellow lifejacket, which I brought in from the garage and hung in the bedroom closet; the tiles in the downstairs bathroom, which he installed; the desk in the front room that he turned into part of his knife-sharpening station after his stroke; the Buddha statue in the guest bedroom.
Since his death, I’ve reflected often on how although we committed to spending the rest of our lives together, it never occurred to me until he had his stroke that I could outlive him. When I thought before his stroke about “spending the rest of our lives together,” I imagined we would die together. I realize now how naïve that thought is. It was always much more likely that one of us would outlive the other. How my mind managed to evade that thought for 12 years is probably related to my age—I imagine older couples might be more cognizant of the likelihood of widowhood. But maybe not. I’m sure I’ll be in love again, and in this moment, it seems impossible to think about being in love with someone and not also anticipating that one of us is going to outlive the other. But maybe the thrill of new love blurs that thought.
The next occasion to survive is our anniversary in March, and then the big doozy: my birthday. It was on my birthday 2021 that I made the decision to remove him from life support. I have no idea how either of these days will hit me, but I am keeping them clear on my schedule and allowing myself to be open to whatever emotions come. I’ve indicated them as “Remembrance Days” on my calendar.