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 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 simply 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? 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?” They don’t get that your loss is front-and-center in your mind 24-7, and their mentioning 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 time warp and before you know it, you’re crossing a threshold that has shown up prematurely and unwanted. 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 now.
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. “I’ll be two weeks,” I said.
“You could be six weeks,” he countered.
Day One, post-op, I was in plenty of 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 fully worn off. There was nothing to hinder me from fully feeling every fiber of pain in my wrist. The raw pain took my breath away. Had it not been for the bottle of pills, it would have been unbearable.
(And I was four weeks, for the record. It was humbling.)
This is what Year Two is like. You have slowly stepped out of the anesthetic-like fog of shock that God provides to help us ease into the depth of pain that this type of loss brings. And now, your wound is still fresh—and the pain unbearable—only there is nothing to shield you from feeling the full brunt of your pain. (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 even one friend (and preferably two or three)—a few beautiful souls who are long on listening and short on fixing. If your loss is the type that has also devastated other members of your family, it is especially important for you to find such a friend 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).
You probably won’t need to ask your grief partner(s) for hours upon hours of listening—or day upon day of being available. But find someone who can walk alongside you on the Year Two days you know will be hard, and who is willing to be on-call for those unexpected triggers—stumbling across a piece of your loved one’s jewelry or writings or photos, or getting the death certificate in the mail, or any number of other triggers you didn’t see coming but that have left you wrecked. 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 during the 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 loved I felt.
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.