Unhappy Anniversary

black balloons

“When a year later arrived, I didn’t like the date of Mom’s death being called an anniversary.”

I don’t recall if that statement was read in a book or was part of a conversation. But the sentence has stuck with me, bothered me, and I still haven’t done much to change one of my phone habits.

Included in my responsibilities at the hospice where I work is calling the bereaved. Based on our company’s guidelines, we try to schedule calls several weeks and several months after the family member or friend has died. With some exceptions, the final scheduled phone contact is near the one year “anniversary” of the death date.

I’m glad we do. Even a brief or awkward conversation lets a griever know they are not forgotten. In many of those calls, no one will answer. These days, people are more likely to let a phone ring and find out later who left—or didn’t leave—a message. There are always disconnected numbers or ones that block “unknown” callers. However, quite a few people do respond. They are at work or home or traveling and suddenly there is this voice on the other end asking them, almost a year later, how they are doing.

One memorable call involved a woman I had talked with in the past. In preparing for the call, I read my notes in the medical records and noted that we have chatted three or four times since her husband’s death. She was well supported by family, her close friends kept in touch, and she usually took a moment to praise the hospice staff’s efforts when her dying husband was our patient.

With every prior call, she was fine.

But not on the call that came eleven or so months after his death.

She cried. Because everyone is different in their grief, the deepest reality of his death didn’t impact her until nearly a year later. With her—I wish this would happen for more people—I was able to quickly connect her to an appointment with one of our grief counselors.

While talking to her, I bet I said I was calling “around the anniversary” of his death.


Isn’t that supposed to be a fun word? Couples celebrate a first or tenth year of marriage. We have silver and golden anniversaries. Hallmark, along with other sites on the web, offer lists for what you should get to help honor every annual occasion. Anniversary #9 is pottery. Really? Or how about an appliance for all the joy found in seventeen years together? (Here, honey, I got you this swell trash compactor to show my everlasting devotion?)

There are birthdays! We remember first dates and first kisses and first serious romances/break-ups! Everyone will have their own private firsts; some mentionable, some not!

But what about the date of a death? Bring on the black balloons?

Should that be called an anniversary?

Should I try to remember to say: “I am calling about one year after the death”? (Though using the word “death” is also emotionally loaded for many grievers, I prefer it over lost or passed or gone.)

As with all of the happy occasions, there are personal, anguished anniversaries forever linked with the death. Grieving parents won’t forget when they took their child in to the physician’s office and received the diagnosis that changed everything. Grieving spouses know the exact date of the first or last time they were forced to go to the emergency room. For the bereaved, the calendar can become filled with memorable, miserable dates. Yes, they may be anxious about the next Thanksgiving that is clearly marked on everyone’s calendar, but they also dread a particular date in March or July that no one else would notice on any calendar. However, for them, a painful anniversary haunts them as they approach that month and that week and that day.

So, what should I say?

What do you say?

I think the worst thing may be to not say anything. Even though some of your friends and family who are grieving don’t like to talk about the death, that doesn’t mean you can’t send a note. A call. A text. Let them know you remember. Grievers also forget. This year, the seventh year after my father’s death in early February, I didn’t “remember” until later in that month. Which then made me feel a bit guilty. Grief invariably finds a way to sink its teeth into your soft flesh and tender soul.

Nonetheless, we all get back to some odd or rebuilt version of normal.

When a friend seems “down” or “upset” or “sad,” and you rediscover they are confronted by a difficult date, I hope you don’t avoid talking about the beloved deceased. I believe that openly sharing about the dreary moments and brightest memories will lead to more healing rather than more hurting.

Still, my question lingers: should a year (or five or ten years) be called an “anniversary?”

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. The Jewish name for this type of Anniversary is “Yahrzeit”. It is an occasion to recite the Kaddish (Mourner’s Prayer) in memory of your loved one. You might want to know that when you are speaking with a Jewish client.

  2. Thank you Larry for your insightful words.

    For those who work/volunteer in palliative care, we are always find ourselves in new situations in which we wonder, “What should I say or not say.”

    By sharing your thoughts and experience, it allows many of us to add reference points to our “skill sets”.

    And by doing so we can become better at comforting others in their greatest time of need.

    Keep on sharing with us. Your words are well appreciated.

    – Michael

  3. I always liked Remembrance instead of Anniversary. Remembrance can be anytime and you don’t need a reason to remember. No score keeping either. Some years I remember on the date and the time but most of the time it begins a few days before and sometimes drags on for a week after. Sometimes I need to push it out of my mind because there is something important happening. I share my memories with someone about their loss we remember the person now dead, we remember that relationship and eventually, hopefully, giggle a little, while hating that the person we are giggling about is not there to share in the moment. Remembrance is comforting because I know and those who share this experience knows that we won’t forget the person now long time missed, the memories we may or may not share in the moment and the people who were there and remember why we are giggling.

  4. Perhaps we need a new word in our culture to replace anniversary. In Jewish practice, a Yahrzeit (German Jahrzeit: “year time”) candle is lit and Kaddish recited on the day one year after a death. I have been involved in graveside remembrances for Japanese Americans on the date the first year after the death of a loved one (called “Isshuuki” in Japanese.)

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