Everyone tells you the first year after the death of a loved one is the hardest. The first birthday, the first Christmas, the first Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. And for me, the first year was no cake walk, mind you.
But what I had not expected is that the second year is really not much better than the first. In fact, in some ways it’s harder. I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I would be doing you no favors to skirt the truth.
In Year Two, the people around you are relieved that you made it through Year One. There is an unspoken assumption that surely you must be through the worst of it. You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief amongst your co-workers, friends, and even family when you cross the one-year threshold. No friend actually says, “Aren’t you over it yet?” (If they do, be gracious but enlighten them that grief chooses its own timeline.) They don’t begrudge you—at least not verbally—your occasional hard days in Year Two.
But inside, you fear you have overstayed your welcome on the Grief Train. You begin to sense you’ve pushed the limit on how much you can ask of well-meaning, good people—that surely they must be growing weary of your inability to function at 100%, to think clearly, to keep from mentioning your loved one at random or inappropriate times, and to keep your emotions in check.
I get how our friends and coworkers must feel. For the most part, our society is uncomfortable with grief—or with any emotions other than happiness or perhaps political indignation. So what do we do when someone is in genuine pain for a genuine loss—and for longer than we imagined? We are ill-equipped.
“Do I say something on the second anniversary of your loved one’s death? The second Thanksgiving? The start of the second school year?” your friends may wonder. “And if I do say something, what if it only reminds you of your loss and ruins your day?” People don’t get that your loss is front-and-center in your mind 24-7. They don’t realize that when they mention your loved one or your loss, it is a welcomed relief that validates your sorrow.
The problem is, to your friends, a whole year has passed, but to you, only a year has passed. And it doesn’t feel like a whole year. It feels like you’ve been in a fog-infused time warp and before you know it, you’ve crossed a threshold that has shown up prematurely and unwanted—the one-year anniversary. Your wound is still fresh. You are surprised by its freshness. You wonder, shouldn’t I be feeling better by now? It’s been a year. And yet the pain is still raw, burning, mentally consuming, physically exhausting. And you don’t want the days to keep marching forward, the weeks to keep slipping by, the months on the calendar to keep turning, because each increment of time creates more distance between when your loved one was alive—and today.
Acute grief is like surgery.
I remember when I had surgery on a broken wrist, six months after Katie died. It was an aggressive surgery involving the removal of my scaphoid bone, the removal of a nerve, and a bone graft that would fuse four other wrist bones together. Not a walk in the park. The doctor warned me, “This is one of the most painful surgeries you can have. Most patients are on narcotics 24 hours a day for 2–6 weeks afterwards.”
I rolled my eyes because I have a pretty robust pain tolerance. “I’ll be two weeks,” I said.
“You could be six weeks,” he countered.
Day One post-op, I was in pain, to be sure. I could tell they’d knocked me around pretty good inside my wrist. But I had a sturdy cast in place to protect me, and I was still a little foggy from the anesthesia. And of course, I had a bottle of Happy Pills at my side to take the edge off my pain.
But Day Two caught me off guard. The anesthesia had now worn off completely. There was nothing to hinder me from feeling the full brunt of the surgery in every fiber of my wrist. The raw pain took my breath away. Had it not been for the bottle of pills, the pain would have been unbearable.
(And I was four weeks, for the record. It was quite humbling.)
This is what Year Two is like. You are stepping out of the anesthetic-like fog of shock that God provides in Year One, which helps us ease into the depth of pain that significant loss brings. But your wound is still fresh—and the pain unbearable—only there is nothing to shield you from feeling the full brunt of your loss. (And a bottle of Happy Pills won’t touch this kind of wound. Nor should it.) There’s no going back. The only way toward less pain is to move forward.
During Year Two (and certainly during Year One, as well!), it will do your pain-soaked heart a world of good if you can find one or two friends—beautiful souls who can remain your grief partners for a little longer—who are long on listening and short on fixing. When others have moved on because they’re confident you are on the “other side” of grief, you’ll have people you can turn to on days that still leave you gasping for air.
If your loss is the type that has also devastated other members of your family, it is especially important for you to find these types of friends outside your family circle. When a death of a child or a parent with at-home children occurs, the entire household is wracked with pain, and as a parent, you are acutely aware that your own grief must not be dumped upon the shoulders of your children. (This doesn’t mean you hide your grief from them; they in fact must see your grief in order to validate their own feelings of sorrow. But you are still the parent, and it would be irresponsible for you to lean upon your children as your primary support).
Find people willing to walk alongside you on the Year Two days you know will be hard, and to be on-call for those unexpected triggers—stumbling across a piece of your loved one’s jewelry or writings or photos, or receiving mail addressed to them, or any number of other triggers you didn’t see coming. Just knowing you have someone ready to take a call or meet with you can bring a peace of mind that helps you face each day with a little more sure-footedness.
I’ve been blessed with a couple such grief partners, and one in particular. In Year Two, on most hard days, I just need to shoot her an email and process what’s going on inside. And she listens and validates my sorrow. Sometimes I might need a phone call and she is good at catching my tears. And every once in a while, I am knocked flat, and it’s an all-out cry for help, and I drive over to her house or she meets me somewhere. She can't fix things, but just her presence means the world to me. It soothes my scorched soul. She has visited Katie’s crash site with me and planted flowers. She has watched videos and looked at photos. On the one-year mark of Katie’s death, she and my other grief girlfriend surprised me with a beautiful, elegant brunch—an opportunity to do my own grieving that morning so I could be fully present and focused on my family and their grief when they got home from school and work later in the day. Today, when I look back on the one-year mark of Katie’s death, it isn’t my sorrow I remember–it’s that brunch, and those friends, and how they loved me so well.
So find your grief partner(s). And fully expect Year Two to surprise you with its depth of pain. Perhaps you will be pleasantly surprised and find that my words don't match your experience. I celebrate with you if that’s the case! But if not, you’ve been forewarned: Get ready. The anesthesia will wear off, and Year Two is a beast.
ADDENDUM: Approaching Year 10
January 18, 2018
In re-reading this article I wrote two years after my daughter died, I see how applicable it is for the entirety of one’s grief journey. Year Two was in fact hard, but each year since has brought moments that steal away our breath with the depth of loss we feel.
Year Ten of Katie’s death lurking on the horizon, and my husband and I are dreading its approach. How can it have been a decade? And how can we still be weeping, long after the anesthesia has worn off?
This Christmas was so much harder than I’d anticipated. We’ve navigated nine other Christmases without our girl, so what unexplored piece of our loss could this particular Christmas possibly hold? And yet, the grief sideswiped me as I hung my girl’s ornaments on our tree. Grief sideswiped my husband as he added lights to our “Katie tree” in the back yard—a tree dressed in red lights except for the one at the very top, in white, in honor of our girl.
We’re are not alone. If you lost a loved one, even long ago, you know that grief still sweeps in, unexpected and uninvited, no matter how many years have passed. Some types of loss simply last a lifetime. Perhaps all types of loss last a lifetime.
Yet hard as they are, I have learned to savor those painful moments. They remind me—not only how great a loss we suffered, but of how great a love we treasured, in a daughter who left us much too soon.
Ten years is but a blink.