“The 10th anniversary of Helen’s death is coming up,” I told my husband. “I think we should do something significant—write a large check to the food bank or the public library.” John nodded his head in agreement. Helen died from the injuries she received in a car crash. There were audio books in the car and I was the one who returned them to the library, told the librarian Helen had died, and the books were overdue.
“I owe you money,” I said.
The librarian’s reply: “You owe us nothing.”
As soon as I finished this story I began to cry. What was going on? The 10th anniversary of Helen’s death was really an anniversary of four deaths. In 2007 four family members—Helen (mother of our twin grandkids), my father-in-law, my brother, and twins’ father—all died. No wonder John and I think of this year as the year of death. Thankfully Helen, who was divorced from the twins’ father, had a will and it listed us as the twins’ guardians. The court followed her wishes.
When the twins moved in with us they were 15 years old and we cared for them for seven years. Life was hard for us all. John and I tried to be upbeat for the twins, yet at the same time, we were grieving for multiple losses. Helen died of blunt force trauma, words I hate to say or write. On a snowy night she entered a highway from a rural road and her car was hit broadside. Helen suffered severe external and internal injuries. Her daughter, who was in the car with her, had a mild concussion.
The 10 year marker of Helen’s death took us back in time, back to trauma, back to emotional pain.
Bob Deitz, in his book Life After Loss, writes about grief anniversaries. Grief can be a time of self-discovery, according to Deits. As he explains, “Grief is as much about finding as it is about losing.” John and I understand this sentence. We think becoming GRGs, grandparents raising grandchildren, is the greatest blessing of our lives. Over time, the four of us evolved into a “grand family” and our lives meshed. Each of us recovered from grief in our own way.
Sonya Lott, PhD, writes about grief reconciliation/recovery in her article, “Finding New Meaning in Your Living After a Loved One Dies,” posted on the Good Therapy website. The path to integrated grief involves three convergent processes, notes Lott, accepting reality, finding new meaning in life, and staying bonded to the deceased. John and I went through all three processes and life settled down for a while.
But crisis struck in 2013 John’s aorta suddenly dissected. He was bleeding to death and surgeons operated on him three times in an attempt to stop the bleeding. During the last operation John suffered a spinal cord injury that paralyzed his legs. He was hospitalized for eight months and during this time I moved us out of the house we had lived in for 20+ years, put the house on the market, visited him three times a day, and maintained a writing career.
Our love is stronger than ever, yet I grieve for John’s disability and its impact on our lives.
John knew he might not survive the last surgery, but was willing to “roll the dice,” as he put it, because he wanted to see the twins graduate from college. Although he wasn’t able to be there, he cried when he learned both twins graduated with high honors and Phi Beta Kappa. Because he “rolled the dice” he was able to be in our granddaughter’s wedding and escorted her down the aisle in his wheelchair. The minute I saw them I started to cry and noticed many wedding guests were crying too.
Grief anniversaries are times of remembering. Toronto poet Maureen Scott Harris writes about her memories in “The Tenth Anniversary of Your Death.” Thoughts of the past prove “it is not fading,” she writes. Helen and the twins have not faded from our lives and we are still connected to them. Our granddaughter works at The Salvation Army headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota and is an independent photographer. Our grandson is a student at The Mayo Clinic School of Medicine and will be the third physician in our immediate family.
All of these experiences—John’s health crisis, raising grandchildren, multiple losses, and Helen’s death—were part of the 10th anniversary. Similar to a highway mile marker, the anniversary of Helen’s death was a life marker, and proved my resilience. I had made it this far, created a new life, and learned many things. I know I’m a strong person. I know writing is a source of comfort and knowledge. I know giving to others helped me survive tragedy. I know goal-setting is an ongoing task. I know each moment of life is a miracle.
Most important, I know I made good things from grief.