“All married couples to the dance floor!”
You may know this wedding reception game. As a love song plays, the DJ calls out instructions, like, “If you’ve been married for less than a year, get off the floor!” They continue upping the ante, shouting out additional years as the song continues. The just-married couple is the first to stop dancing, with other pairs eventually trailing behind. By the end of the song, there’s just one elderly couple — often the grandparents of the bride or groom — holding strong.
As cheesy as it is, Jamie and I loved that tradition. We got married when we were both 23, and enjoyed surprising people with how long we’d been husband and wife. We’d dance a goofy dance, smiling at each other, until our year got called out. Then, from the sidelines of the dance floor, we’d watch that remaining elderly couple and think, That will be us someday!
Now I sort of hate that game.
Even though I understand it for what it is — a simple, sweet, and fun thing to do at a wedding — I find it unnecessarily painful. It feels like I got permanently kicked off the dance floor due to a technicality. I see old couples and think how lucky they are, and how society is wrong in assuming that time together determines the strength of a relationship. It just means that someone hasn’t died yet.
I’m very fun at weddings! You should invite me to one!!
This Friday is (would have been? should have been?) my 11th wedding anniversary with Jamie.
I stumble when trying to describe the milestone to other people, just as I stumble when trying to recognize my widowed friends’ own difficult dates. An easy “Happy anniversary!” no longer works: I’m not sure whether it counts an anniversary if half of the couple is dead, and can attest firsthand that it’s not the happiest day.
Acknowledging these milestones is awkward, yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. In fact, the discomfort makes acknowledging the date that much more important.
We’ve all been in the situation of supporting a friend, family member, or coworker who’s grieving. We have been and will be that person who needs supporting. Although we’ve all played these roles, and will fill them at various capacities and times throughout our lives, we — somehow! — feel wholly unequipped in responding to these situations when they arise.
If you’ve been the person supporting, you’ve likely felt incapacitated as you wondered what’s the most helpful thing that you can do. If you’ve been the one needing support, you’ve probably felt overwhelmed by trying to offer up helpful ideas.
There are lots of things, of course, that we can do and suggest in these situations. There’s the immediate aftermath help that comes in the form of home-cooked meals and sympathy cards. There’s the longer-term support, like checking in periodically or coordinating things like grief counseling. And there are endless small and meaningful I’m-thinking-of-you gestures that go a surprisingly long way. (I shared 23 of my favorites here.)
But right now, days before my would-be, should-be wedding anniversary, I’m thinking of the simplest things that matter most: Reaching out on the important dates, and talking about the person who is gone.
Every person’s grief experience is different, but what I’ve gleaned from my own losses and from talking with widowed friends is that there are few especially tough dates on which we could use some mindfulness and extra TLC from loved ones: The death date (sometimes known as the deathiversary); the deceased person’s birthday; and, if the loss is a romantic partner, the anniversary date. Holidays can be difficult, too, especially in the first few years post-loss.
If you want to do something meaningful for a close friend, put those dates in your calendar. Reach out and tell that person that you’re thinking of them on those days. Even better, share a story about the person that they miss so much.
You lose so much when a spouse dies. It’s a humbling, disorienting, frustrating experience. It’s been more than two and a half years since I became a widow, and I am still discovering secondary losses that have stemmed from Jamie’s death. From friendships and financial security, to self-confidence and identity, the losses have been wide-ranging and wide-reaching.
Some days I feel like literally everything in my life is affected by grief. That sounds dramatic, I know, but it’s true. Jamie’s death greatly impacted the way I look at the world, interact with people, and envision the future. I’m less trusting of the universe than I was before. It’s more difficult for me to dream big and make plans, or believe that things will work out for the best. Loving deeply — and letting myself be loved by others — is scarier than it’s ever been. And I find it harder to be present when people I love are at their happiest.
I’ve gotten gifts from loss, too. I understand, in a way that I never could before, that everything is temporary. I think about my legacy and the life I want to live in a more urgent and concrete way. I believe in and practice the power of gratitude. I work harder to be present when people I love are suffering.
I’m still figuring out how I’ll spend Friday — my would-be, should-be anniversary. I’m planning to have dinner with a dear friend who also misses Jamie. I’m hoping to share stories about my funny dance partner and of anniversaries past. I’d be cool if I did something nice just for myself.
I also want to redefine what September 27 means to me.
I don’t always want to be weighed down by the past. I don’t always want to get overly sad this time of year, and take out that sadness on the people I love. I don’t want to be standing on the dance floor sidelines, feeling bitter. I want to focus less on the multitude of losses that death brings, and be more open to its many unexpected gifts.
I recently revisited “Love is a Mixtape,” Rob Sheffield’s memoir about losing his wife, Renée, and becoming a widow at 31. I read the book around this time in 2017, as I was about to face my first wedding anniversary without Jamie. During that first read, I highlighted this section. It seemed impossible to imagine at the time:
“After Renée died, I assumed the rest of my life would be just a consolation prize. I would keep living, and keep having new experiences, but none of them would compare to the old days. I would have to settle for a lonely life I didn’t want, which would always remind me of the life I couldn’t have anymore. But it didn’t turn out that way, and there’s something strange and upsetting about that. I would have stayed in 1996 if I could have, but it wasn’t my choice, so now I have to move either forward or back—it’s up to me. Not changing isn’t an option. And even though I’ve changed in so many ways—I’m a different person with a different life—the past is still with me every minute.”
Now, three would-be, should-be wedding anniversaries later, the reality that Sheffield describes seems like the one I’m headed towards: becoming and accepting that I’m a different person with a different life.
Whether I like it or not, I’m facing a brand new dance floor with entirely different rules. On some days, like today, I’m not feeling brave or light enough to get back out there. But I know there will be other days ahead — glorious, gratitude-filled days — when I’ll once again feel the urge to dance.
Good job, brain
I'm reading: “Fleishman is in Trouble,” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. As someone who’s looking back at my own past marriage — albeit for different reasons than the main character — this book made me reflect on the stories we tell ourselves about the relationships we’re in. It’s a heavy and fascinating book.
I’m inspired by: Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old environmental activist who’s behind the Climate Strike marches that took place around the world last week.
I'm aiming to: Listen to my body more. I have been Stuck. In. My. Head. for the past few days, and it sucks.
“Mommy, you said it’s hard to understand what happened to June, but I want it to be soft.” This week’s Modern Love made me cry.
This is a helpful look at the variety of secondary losses some people experience after someone close to them dies.
Speaking of grief and dance, I love this idea of dancing as self-care. And just to be clear: I can’t dance well! That’s not the point. The point is to let the emotions, and your body, flow.
I wish this book wasn’t one that came in handy so many times in life, but alas: “There’s No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful and Unfair to People You Love.”
I’ve mentioned Grief Coach before, but it’s worth mentioning again: It’s specifically designed to help people support other people who are grieving. Interested? Use the code SWEETDUMBBRAIN for 50% off your subscription.
For your sweet dumb brain
Think about a friend or family member who’s grieving a major loss, and put their significant dates into your calendar — deathiversary, birthday of the deceased, and anniversary (if applicable).
That’s step one. Step two is actually reaching out on those dates. Do it, even if it’s been years since the loss! Do it, even if you feel awkward! Do it, even if you’ve missed important dates in the past! The gesture will be greatly appreciated, trust me.
This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who marked Jamie’s last deathiversary by sending me a dozen mini donuts. Get yourself a friend like Becca.