The Looming 365

Can I face my mom’s first deathiversary without imploding? How can I get my wife to accept the reality that I’m dying? (I already have)

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The one-year anniversary of my mom’s death is approaching. I am totally dreading it. Should I take the day off work? What are some things I can do that day to make it easier? It feels like a weird day to “celebrate” my mom, but I’m not sure what would be best to get through the day in one piece.

Get creative; don’t sit around lighting candles on a deathiversary.

A bit of truth here: It’s gonna come whether you dread it or not, so try not to spend too much time on that (even though I’m cringing a little writing that, because we’ve all been there). If what you’re dreading is the sense that you’re going to (or supposed to) feel a certain way that day, let go of that one as well. Society places a heck of a lot of weight on that first anniversary as a milestone in designated mourning time, but you’re not going to wake up a year from the day, look in the mirror, and feel magically different, or better, or “over it” (like losing your virginity – unless you did feel magically different, in which case I’m jealous).

I agree that the concept of celebrating someone on they day they died seems weird. But it can be helpful to do something to remember or honor them on that day. I’ve never been a big graveside visitor, mainly because I don’t really feel my people there as much as I do when I’m in the places they loved. So eat a lobster roll or go to her favorite museum or take a walk in a neighborhood she liked (or you think she would have liked). Listen to the music that was always playing in your kitchen growing up. Attempt to make grilled cheese that special way she did. Grab lunch with a good friend of hers you’re still close with. Do something you always wanted to do with her but didn’t get the chance. Doesn’t matter how small the gesture, as long as it’s meaningful to you.

Also: eight hours is a reeeeeally long time to be alone with your thoughts, even without remembering someone who died. If you’re still really dreading the day and don’t come up with a plan for how to spend your time, I wouldn’t recommend taking off work. Sometimes it’s better to put the blinders on for a bit and stay busy. After all, your mother’s birthday will also eventually come around, and though that will be sad too, it may feel more natural for you to celebrate her then.

I have been deemed terminal by my heart doctors. I have accepted my fate, and all of my end-of-life medical and legal paperwork is in order.  But my wife hasn’t accepted my prognosis.  It’s gotten to the point where I feel like she’s avoiding me for fear that, at any moment, she’ll find me gone. My question is: How I can help my wife come to terms with the reality she is facing? Are there specific resources that she may find helpful now, and also for when I’m gone? I want her to have a long and happy life, even if I am not there to share it with her. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge you are remarkable for wanting so much, during this time, to help your wife. You probably already know one of the hardest aspects of this, which is that you can’t force anyone to accept anything. All you can do is make sure your wife has the resources she needs for what will be a long, confusing and painful journey.

Everything I’m about to recommend sounds easy, but it’s obviously the polar opposite. So here goes: If you haven’t done it yet, hold her hand and tell her the simplest version of what you wrote.

1. Reach out to your caregivers to learn about available local support (terminally ill support groups, widow groups, and grief therapists). No one can provide quite the same support as someone who’s endured a similar situation. Finding the right person to talk to could take a few attempts, but it’s always worth a try.

2. Bring her to as many of your doctor appointments as possible. Medical professionals get a bad rap when dealing with families because they can be so blunt, but comfort can be found in the clarity they provide. Your wife may not feel comfortable talking or asking questions in front of you, so give her some time alone with a doctor or nurse.

3. You say your paperwork is in order, but does that include funeral or memorial services? If you’d like to have one, include her in the planning so she doesn’t have to go through the painful process of arranging the details when you’re gone – or worse, wondering what you would have wanted. Give her the songs you want played or tell her what pictures to display (or not display). Have a morbid laugh about who you definitely do not want to be a pallbearer. This could be an excruciating discussion, so try to bring up happy memories associated with the elements in the service. Reminisce together about the good times; after all, that is part of what you will want people to remember.

4. Extract a promise from her. Tell her one of your greatest wishes is that she travels to someplace you always meant to go, or learns to surf, or does competitive ballroom dancing, or whatever feels most authentic to you. The bigger the better, since it will force her out of herself, and by extension, maybe out of her grief for a bit. And when she does have the chance to do one of these things, she’ll clearly remember that she has your blessing to go for it.

5. She is going to miss the hell out of you. So leave her whatever you can to cling to: write the letter of your life, and include pictures, for her to read after you are gone. (I don’t know if you have kids, but if you do, you might want to do the same for them.) If you want to go even further, record a conversation with her. It’s a priceless gift. StoryCorps is an amazing organization that enables people to record interviews with each other about important moments in their lives. Its site has a great list of questions to help you get started.

Finally, make sure she takes time for herself, and make sure you take time for yourself. Everybody knows they are going to die eventually, but knowing it is on the horizon is another prospect entirely. You have a chance to make the most of this time you have together. Good luck.

Meg Tansey hails from New England, where talking about your feelings is frowned upon. She has lots of life experience but is not an actual therapist. Meg has a MFA from The New School and currently lives and writes in New York City. Send Meg your questions at (subject: Ask ML).

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