All of a sudden yesterday, it struck me odd that I have turned into someone who celebrates such events, or even one who marks them. I never used to do things like that. Never kept track. I did know when my birthday was and how old I am, of course, but any other anniversaries just passed me by. To be honest, my birthday did too. Jeff and I didn’t make a big deal about birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays except by default. Since stores were closed and nothing much was happening on Christmas or Thanksgiving, for example, we’d hunker down and watch movies with plates of snacks, but other than that, one day was just like any other.
Until he died.
When we lose a significant person in our life, one whose death rocks us to the very depths of our being and changes us forever, it’s as if we are born into a world of grief, and our internal clocks reset themselves to that moment of birth.
At first, we count the minutes and hours we’ve lived, then, after we’ve survived twenty-four or forty-eight interminable and interminably painful hours, we being counting the days. Eventually we move on to counting weeks, months, years, and even decades. To the uninitiated, this counting seems as if we’re dwelling on the past, constantly reminding ourselves of our sorrow, but the truth is, counting is a way of helping us survive this new, alien world.
Grief distorts time. Sometimes it feels as if time stops, but simultaneously it feels as if it speeds up. Seconds seem like hours. Hours can feel like days or can pass by in seconds. We lose track of what the date is. The past and future becomes so entwined that we can’t always be sure if we’re going forward or backward. A particularly strong flashback to the days before our loved one died can make it seem as they are still alive, in another room perhaps. An especially serene moment between grief upsurges can catapult us to a future world of possibility, a world without pain. Counting the days helps put time back into perspective.
Now, I am in the habit of counting, of keeping track, of living. Every anniversary is another year lived. Every year — every day — lived is another day that counts.
Although Jeff’s death devastated me, I was simultaneously aware that it set me free from a lifetime of taking care of someone who could no longer take care of himself. Although it was unwanted and unintended, this gift of freedom, I could not, cannot bring myself to waste it.
So I count the years and celebrate my life’s milestones.
And today I am celebrating friendship and neighbors and new beginnings.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.