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A Love-Filled Moment at the Anniversary of a Death

A year after my father died, I feel myself shifting into a new relationship with grief.

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“All year I have been keeping time by last year’s calendar,” Joan Didion writes in her extraordinary book, The Year of Magical Thinking as the year after her husband’s sudden death approached. That sentence leaped off the page as I read it just days before September 21, the first anniversary of my father’s death. 

As each month has unfolded during the first year of mourning, even as the year took a left turn into the coronavirus pandemic and all of its attendant “new normals,” I often felt my thoughts turning to where my dad was in his pancreatic cancer treatment a year ago—that time we got to go to the movies when he felt up to it after a hospital stay; that time we got encouraging news and had a family dinner to celebrate; that time I unapologetically wept in the oncology waiting room.

The time-cued memories stretched back further than that, to the previous year when his diagnosis had set our family reeling, and yet more into past travels, celebrations and experiences of the lifetime (mine) I shared with him.

“Keeping time” is a lovely, succinct descriptor of the year of mourning from my Jewish faith perspective as well. Each Friday evening, my sister and I have attended Shabbat services to recite the mourner’s prayer for Dad, rising (in the sanctuary, or in our living rooms, once Zoom services became the norm) when the rabbi called for those who are “in the 12 months of mourning” to stand. We have been, for the past 52 weeks, inside the sacred space of our mourning.

As the anniversary of his death approached, I wasn’t sure what to expect, wasn’t sure I was ready to let go of this practice of “keeping time.” After all, mourning and grief are two different things, and the latter cannot—should not—be bound or organized by the passage of a set period of time. 

But an unexpected change came into my emotional orbit as the date drew near. I realized something that was both profoundly painful and beautiful at the same time. I realized that at this stage in my grief, I am missing my father’s presence in my life now, rather than measuring today against where the family was a year ago.

I am missing the joy he would have taken in my son having completed our family’s favorite challenging bike ride for the first time this summer. The insight he would have had about how to live as well as possible during the pandemic. Simply the time we could have spent together now, virtually and actually. 

Could this shift in perspective be the natural progression into the second year after my dad’s death? 

I welcome this possibility as an indication that he remains present in my thoughts, feelings, actions, decisions and memory well beyond the time he was physically walking, talking and living.

I am—maybe, possibly—starting to feel ready to move through the acuteness of his illness and loss. At the anniversary of his death, maybe I am stepping into a new stage, a new year of, if not mourning, the grief that is partly comprised of gratitude that I had a father whose love and voice I will always search for in the deepest places of my own heart.

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