The “firsts”. If you’ve attended a wake or a funeral or have read even one article or book on loss (as the result of the death of a loved one, divorce, etc.) and grieving, you’ve surely heard or seen some reference to the “firsts”. Common knowledge tells us that the first Christmas, birthday, anniversary, and Thanksgiving, etc, are the most difficult for someone who has suffered the loss of a loved one, especially that of a spouse or a child.
Without a doubt, these firsts can be unbearably painful, as the absence of a loved one seems amplified — if that’s possible — on these days that hold so many memories. A dear friend shared with me that she couldn’t even get out of bed on her first wedding anniversary after the death of her husband; she called in sick and spent the day wrapped in blankets and a cocoon of pain. Another friend told me that the first Christmas after her 5-year-old son passed away was “just a tad less horrifically painful” than the day he died.
One by one, though, the “firsts” approach, are endured, and become part of the past. The last hurdle — the first anniversary of the death of a loved one or of divorce — passes, and life goes on. And the next year is better. Right?
For many people, myself included, the answer to that question has proven to be “no”. In the past few years, I’ve had more than a few conversations about loss and the grieving process with friends, family members, and even complete strangers. At first, I was surprised to learn that I wasn’t alone, and that others had struggled as much with grief the 2nd year after a significant loss as they did the first. Some people confessed that for them, the 2nd year was actually worse than the 1st. I must admit, I was also relieved to discover I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t grieving “wrong”, and that something wasn’t wrong with me.
As the very-difficult 2nd year after the death of my husband grew to a close, I began to search for information on the 2nd year after a loss. I consulted numerous books, searched online, and read an untold number of articles, all of which stressed the fact that everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace. That said, except for a few blogs here and there and a passing mention in a few other sources, I found little discussion of the 2nd year in the grieving process. It was almost as if there’s an official-but-unofficial calendar of grief — and there are only 12 pages on that calendar.
I’m not a psychologist or sociologist or any -ist at all, but I have a theory as to why the 2nd year proves to be so difficult. First, because it’s common knowledge that “the first year is the hardest”, a person who has faced a significant loss braces themselves for those “firsts”. I know that I was on heightened alert, so to speak, as each red-letter day approached, and I tried to steel myself in order to get through the day. When that first year passes, however, it is as if the danger has passed, and we exhale a sigh of relief and let down our guard. That was the case with me, and when our 2nd anniversary arrived — just 13 days after I had made it through the first anniversary of my husband’s death — I was shocked when I woke up to find that the grief and despair had returned in full force.
The second reason goes hand in hand with the first. Our friends and extended family members, also aware of how difficult the “firsts” are, were also on heightened alert on our behalf throughout the first year. Family and friends sent cards, called, went out of their way to spend time with me, or in other ways rallied around my children and I for each of the “firsts”. But like me, they thought the 2nd year would be easier. They were, and rightfully so, busy with their own lives and not as focused on us. As a result, my support system was not as strong as it had been the first year; in fact, for most of the “seconds”, it consisted of only my children, and they were grieving as well.
Another reason, I believe, is that during that first year, a person is caught up in the almost-unending details and tasks that result from the loss of a loved one or a divorce. Dealing with medical bills, insurance issues, and paperwork that seems to come from every direction consumes quite a bit of time. Even though all of this is a result of the loss, it can also somehow take the survivor’s mind of the actuality of the loss. For example, I spent an untold number of hours deciding on the shape, design, type of lettering, and images for the headstone for my husband’s (and eventually my own) grave. While I can’t explain how or why, I do know that as I made these agonizing decisions, my mind was so focused on getting every single detail just right that I wasn’t focused on my loss specifically.
Of course, another reason is simply that after a significant loss — whether it is expected or comes completely out of the blue — the survivor is in shock. Even after that initial shock fades away, many people say that for some time they operated in a fog or as if on autopilot. I know that was true for me; I barely remember doing many of the things I know for fact that I did that first year. I sold a house and 10 acres, for example, and I cannot remember receiving a contract, whether or not I negotiated at all, or even attending the closing. In my memory, one day I was living in our home and the next, I was packing to move.
In the past two years, several friends have lost a parent. After a few months have passed, I’ve made a point of sharing with them that they and their surviving parent may struggle just as much — and maybe even more — with grief in the 2nd year than they did in the 1st year after their loss. Most of them express surprise, and I briefly explain in the hope that they will be aware that their parent — and they themselves — may need more support during the 2nd year than they previously thought and that they will react accordingly.
While there are several recognized stages in the grieving process, they don’t follow a set progression or schedule and, as many of us have learned, there is no magical date on which grief packs its bags and moves completely out of our lives. So if some day 2 or 5 or even more years after that year of “firsts” has passed, grief comes roaring back as strong as ever, be gentle with yourself, do the (healthy) things you have found helpful in the past, and don’t hesitate to call upon your friends and loved ones for support.
Speaking of support, one of the reasons I began this blog was to create a place where people who have experienced the loss of a loved on or of a marriage could share their concerns, fears, struggles with others who are traveling the same path and so that those who have comfort or advice to offer can do so. I hope you will share through by commenting below or, if you would rather share privately, by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will, of course, protect your privacy, will only share your story with your express written permission, and will change your name and any identifying information if I do share here on the blog what you’ve written.