One helpful insight I’ve gotten into the grief process, from materials that church and community organizations have kindly given me, is that there are three special kinds of grief that recur for weeks and months after the initial sharp sense of loss wears off. As I’ve experienced each of these, I’ve also received God’s endless mercies, bringing comfort and grace.
There is, first of all, “anniversary grief.” This can occur on a significant anniversary in your loved one’s life—a birthday, for instance. But it is actually sharper on anniversaries of events related to your loss of that person, for example, their death, or diagnosis, or last day of work.
Exactly four months after Priscilla went home to heaven, I woke up experiencing “month-iversary grief” and dreading the day. But I had to log in to Facebook to share my Endless Mercies post (I was still running them daily at that point), and the first thing I saw was Priscilla’s smiling face looking out at me. Her sister Esther, also conscious of the date, had posted a beautiful picture of the two of them taken at the ocean some years before. It was the top item in my news feed. Priscilla’s smile seemed to say, “I’m still alive!” Which she is, of course, just on “another shore,” as someone said in a comment on the photo. Suddenly I felt able to face the day and I didn’t struggle with grief throughout it as I’d thought I would.
There’s also “milestone grief,” which occurs as we experience “first-time-without” events. Our loved one’s birthday may actually create more milestone grief than anniversary grief, as may a holiday such as Christmas, as we face for the first time the challenge of how to celebrate these special days without that special person present.
In the middle of May I joined the rest of my family in Pittsburgh to celebrate my father’s 90th birthday. Part of the celebration was to be a two-hour cruise on the “three rivers” that meet in the city. We had a party and reception on my father’s actual birthday, but it worked out best to get tickets for the cruise itself a couple of days later—which was Priscilla’s birthday. Most of my family was able to stay in town for the cruise, so I was able to be with them on that day. It would have been so much more difficult if I’d been alone. Mercies indeed.
Finally, there are “grief triggers,” unpredictable things that bring home the reality of your loss in a way you don’t expect and so can’t anticipate. In May I also attended my first wedding as a widower. This created, not surprisingly, some “milestone grief,” and I prepared myself emotionally for that. But the fact that this first-time-without event was specifically a wedding was also a “grief trigger.”
This was because Priscilla absolutely loved weddings. They were just about her favorite thing in life. At one point or another she played almost every possible role in a wedding, except for being the officiant. (Though she often arrived with the officiant!) She had been, of course, a bride, as well as a bridesmaid and a matron of honor. But she was also a reader and singer in services, and several times the coordinator behind the scenes. She designed and sewed bridal gowns, baked and decorated wedding cakes, arranged the flowers, and was even an unofficial photographer for a couple who chose not to have an official one. She catered a rehearsal dinner and a bridal party luncheon, and once created a cheesecake buffet to be the dessert at a reception.
Because I was a pastor and we did student ministry, Priscilla and I probably attended some 80-100 weddings together. But not only would I be attending this next one without her, it would be without whatever special touch she would have added to it if she’d been alive and healthy. I think that helped make it, through no fault of the happy couple, a “grief trigger” for me, causing me to miss her even more.
But I knew two couples who’d also be attending, and I told myself while driving to the service, “This might be hard, but at least these friends will be there. If I can find them and sit with them, I should be all right.” When I pulled into the parking lot, there was no one else around. But a vehicle pulled in right behind me, and out got the first of these couples. And as the three of us were walking out of the lot, we ran into the other couple! These were literally the first four people I saw when I arrived, even though we were coming from three different directions and had to travel varying distances. We sat together in church and at the reception. God is very gracious.