Everyone says that the first year after a loss is the hardest – all the changes, the holidays, the special events. I don’t actually believe “everyone.” I have two mantras for grief. The first I learned many years ago from Carla Sofka, and I’ve quoted her ever since: “We grieve, five or ten minutes at a time, for the rest of our lives.” The other was a reminder one of my co-workers gave me recently, “There’s no timeline for grief.”
For us, a multitude of “firsts” came almost immediately. Juli and Jonah’s birthdays, their anniversary, Father’s Day, and my birthday all fell during Shloshim. Other than my birthday, I have no memory of what we did or didn’t do on those days. I was aware of them. I remember thinking that most of the “major” events in our lives fell right after Bob died and that there wouldn’t be any other “firsts” until the High Holy Days. But as for the days themselves – nothing.
What I did learn was that the most difficult were the ordinary firsts – using the snowblower, the first time traveling without Bob, going to favorite restaurants, seeing friends I had not seen for a while. Some of these snuck up – I didn’t expect them or I felt sad or anxious beforehand but didn’t know why.
In the past few weeks we had the last of the “big” firsts – Bob’s birthday and our anniversary. This year Bob’s birthday coincided with the end of Passover, with Yizkor. Last year we celebrated his birthday five times – small dinners with family, friends, co-workers, and then the big “surprise” party. It wasn’t really a surprise – Bob wasn’t feeling well, so we had to tell him and give him the option of canceling. “I’ll feel better by afternoon,” he said. So the party went on. I’ve been grateful ever since that we celebrated with such gusto and that we had the chance to spend time with so many friends in what turned out to be his last month.
This year, instead of candles on cakes, there was one candle – a yahrzeit candle flickering on my stove. I had known since Yom Kippur when I read the schedule of Yizkor services for the year that Yizkor would be on his birthday. It would be a “twofer” on the grief list. Knowing for 6 months that the days would coincide made it, somehow, easier to bear when the day actually came.
The big birthday party last year was on the night before our anniversary. Bob had felt better in the afternoon and worried that there wasn’t any food in the house for the party. I showed him the food and told him more was coming. Then he wondered about the drinks. We had plenty of wine, but what about beer? When I told him the garage was full of beer that I bought he said, “You don’t know anything about beer. Is it in brown bottles?” I laughed. Since I don’t drink beer, Bob’s experience with my buying beer was that I would look for something intriguing – like blueberry beer – to use in baking beer bread.
The next day he still didn’t feel well and we spent our anniversary going to weekend urgent care, getting him an x-ray and blood tests and a prescription for antibiotics. We didn’t go out to celebrate. We said – did he say it? Did I? Was it just the thought in the air? – “It’s ok, we’ll celebrate next year. We’ll have lots of years to celebrate.” Or – as poet Liz Rosenberg writes in “Susquehanna:”
“I knew we were all going to die
but not then, and not right away;
because in those days
there were more days to come.
I thought I could not
run out of them.”
Our anniversary last year was also “shredding day” at the town dump. Bob had boxes and boxes in the attic filled with paid bills and canceled checks. They dated back to 1984, if not earlier. He talked and talked about getting rid of them, perhaps burning them in the fireplace then, when it was clear that that was a bad idea, trying to find a way to shred them. When I mentioned it had been “shredding day,” he was annoyed that I hadn’t told him. But he wasn’t feeling well and we had plenty of time to get rid of stuff that had been sitting undisturbed for so many years.
This year, my big anniversary event was dealing with that corner of the attic. I ended up with four huge garbage bags of his old bills. I also found five small boxes of my canceled checks that moved with me from Albany. Those went too. Sitting on the top of one box was the folder from our wedding – the guest list, menu, contracts, and other details. I kept that.
There were so many cardboard boxes that I had to make a trip to the dump with just the “regular” garbage. (Even that has echoes of Bob. He would write on the grocery list, or tell me as I was writing it, that I should buy “regular” salsa, “regular” chips, nothing exotic or strange.)
The worker directing traffic at the dump told me, “I never would have imagined that there would be more people lined up for shredding than for hazardous waste.” I was not the only one with bags of old bills and canceled checks. The attic was not the part of my house most in need of cleaning, but it felt right to do this year what we were not able to do last year. It was wonderfully cathartic.
As we near the end of the first year, I know I still have a multitude of “firsts.” There is still much to go through and sort out. I’m certain there will be more changes and challenges. And due to the vagaries of the Jewish calendar, the first few firsts we had last year will occur this year before Bob’s first yahrzeit. But it’s ok. There’s no timeline for grief.