by Sandy Lemen, Director of Programs TCFH

Death anniversaries is a topic that comes up very often in groups. The day(s) surrounding the anniversary of our loss can be extremely difficult, especially the first few. For me, the feelings and rituals have evolved over the 3.5 years since my hardest loss. I offer a glimpse into that process and my journey with “deathiversaries” below, starting with year one…

Deathiversary. A made up word for a very real thing, “deathiversary”. Doesn’t even come with gifts?! Great. I have experienced a whole lot of loss in my 46 years on this planet; my most difficult loss to date has been that of my 23 year old nephew who died by suicide in 2019. His death came with all of the “normal” ripple effects of a death by suicide, but also dredged up a whole host of deep hurts and old wounds within the entire family ecosystem. Because of this, we were not in a place to come together to honor, support and remember as a whole family on the first anniversary (when we all deeply needed it most). I knew I needed to tend to my broken heart, and that of my then 6-year-old daughter’s but I didn’t know how without access to the place where he lived and died or the other people who desperately loved and missed him.

Some members of the family gathered, prayed, had a beautiful lighting ceremony and shared memories. My daughter (who was very close with my nephew) and I brainstormed some ideas of things we thought might help our grieving hearts on this first anniversary of his death. My nephew loved wolves. That has become our sign or symbol for him. We decided that the next best thing to going to his favorite place (the land where he lived and ultimately died) would be
to connect with his favorite animal. Wolves! Where could we find real live wolves to spend the day with? I learned a lot about wolf sanctuaries in surrounding states (some of which he got to visit!) in this quest but the closest we could get within a couple of hours drive was the Zoo’s Safari Park. We decided we’d spend the day with the wolves and figure out the rest as the day came and that felt better to us than anything else we’d come up with. We had a plan(ish).

YEAR ONE. D(eathiversary) DAY
I remember starting the dreaded day with coffee and some horribly sad songs that reminded me of him; ugly-crying at my kitchen counter, rehashing every moment of getting the news of his death and the blur of horrific hours, days, weeks and months that followed, lamenting over the fact that his death drove the family apart vs closer together. It wasn’t pretty, ya’ll. But it was clearly necessary. I was grateful to have taken that time before my daughter woke up to get all of the messiest stuff up and out of my system (at least that biggest wave of– yuck). When she woke, we shared some happy memories, ate breakfast, put on every single wolf-related piece of clothing and jewelry that we owned, and headed to the Safari Park for some wolf-magic and connection with our person.

We spent the drive to the park (about 45 minutes) swapping stories and fantasizing about all the “signs” we’d be sure to get while communing with the wolves! It was going to be magical in every sense. We just knew it. We made our way through the park and over to wolf enclosure. Holding our breath (and hands) we walked up to the fence and peered in – NOTHING. We squinted and paced and whistled (they’re related to dogs, right?) and all of the things and not a wolf in sight. A passerby and apparent wolf expert (insert eye roll) let us know that it was very unlikely to catch a glimpse of them during the summer months at least during the daytime where they wisely hide out in the shade to keep cool. Ugh. Insert pin into balloon. Deflated. Magic bubble bursted. We tried our best to make the most out of the other parts of the park (and kept going back to the wolves just knowing that our person would send us one) and nothing. We were so disappointed. On our way out, we paid a visit to the gift shop and spent way too much money on a couple of wolf shirts and stuffed animals and I tried to cheer us that “hey, we got our wolves, just not in the way we’d hoped.” We sat in the car with our retail therapy for several minutes talking about how dumb it was that wolves hate the summer sun because we needed to see them, dang it.

Rather than coming home totally sad that the day hadn’t gone as planned, I decided to drive us to Lincoln (where my nephew spent a lot of time visiting me as a little guy). We had lunch at our favorite spot, visited the coffee shop where I used to work (and where my nephew spilled every single hot chocolate with extra whipped cream I ever made him) and I showed my daughter the places I used to live (and where my nephew spent time as well). We ended up finding (er—I guess making) magic in completely unexpected and unplanned ways. Our hearts felt happy at the end of the day. Still missing. Still hurting. But also – joyful. Pain and joy can coexist. We were starting to understand this.

When I went to bed that night, I spent some time thanking my nephew for the day (even though “boo to no wolves!”) and sent some loving thoughts to the rest of the family, and a text to his mom and twin sister. I looked back at the past year and gave myself a pat on the back for surviving year one and today’s first deathiversary. I was glad I took the day off to feel whatever I needed to feel and to hold space for memories and waves of emotion, connection with my daughter and maybe a little bit of magic. And I looked forward to coming up with new ways to honor and remember him the next year. I went to sleep with peace in my heart and a little bit of hope. Until next year…

…to be continued. Thanks for reading. 


“In my experience, remembering and sharing the past makes hoping for the future possible.  Your future will become open to new experiences only to the extent that you embrace the past.”

Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.