Death-iversaries: they're a thing

The past few weeks - indeed every January and early February - are some of the most difficult for our family. Just as we begin to recover from the holidays, we are hit with Colleen’s birthday and a few weeks later, the anniversary of her death. Her “death-iversary” is a significant but somber day that we want to recognize, but one that seems weird to “celebrate.” We don’t always know how to react, what to share, what to do. This annual marker coincides with cold weather and post-new year's pledges. We find ourselves with pent-up energy, organizing drawers and closets in a bit of a manic state. We literally can’t help it. Shane opens drawers and when they look messy, immediately needs to fix them, can’t look away. Jessica ordered a label maker and puts labels on everything to feel like things are in order. We get upset when members of our households don’t understand the “new system.” Our home organization compulsion takes over briefly, but it helps us to cope with the recurring sadness this time of year.

We don’t have many friends that we can commiserate with about the death of a sibling at a young age. We feel as though we are in uncharted territory. Are we supposed to be like, “hey can I leave work early to go to the nearest Irish pub because my sister died on this day?” Or “I’m having trouble focusing on anything other than the anniversary of my sister’s death, so I’m just gonna stay in bed, cool?” Or “I’m sorry your remodel is delayed, but I don’t actually care today because my sister died three years ago.” Or “I’d love to join happy hour but I have a conference call with my sisters because this is our sister’s death-iversary... it’s not weird, you’re weird!”  Yet we did begrudgingly get out of bed, we did go to work, we just sort of carried on, but everything felt off, every memory sharper. Maybe we should have just been honest and said those things in our heads, even if it would mean making others uncomfortable.

Death-iversaries are a strange, emotional day. This year, some time has gone by, but the pain is still here, leaving us unsure how to acknowledge the day. We are impressed with family and friends that continue to remember the day that Colleen died and reach out to us. How do they remember? We have a hard enough time with birthdays. These amazing super humans not only remembered a momentous day in our lives and thought to reach out to us, they actually did it with calls, texts, emails, flowers. We are in awe of them and hope that they share their secrets soon (maybe they could take over our birthday calendars, because we’re sure that they’re better at that, too).

We’re far from perfect, but if we were to copy their model-like behavior, we would reach out to friends on their difficult anniversary dates. Or maybe just whenever they are on our minds and we are thinking of them - even if it’s not a death-iversary - that, too, is really nice. We’ve heard people say that celebrating a deceased loved one’s birthday is a more positive date to acknowledge, and some friends did reach out on Colleen’s birthday, a date they may have already been tracking, as opposed to the date of her death. From our perspective, either one is a day that our minds are especially on Colleen, so either date is a good time to hear from friends.

We tried to come up with some things to say next time we remember to be a good friend. We probably can’t avoid our sarcastic humor, so we might say things like:

  • Today must be hard for you, but we could get cheese and drinks to make it feel better?
  • I’m always available if you want to talk about today or even if you need to swear and yell.
  • I’m sorry this day is crappy for you, but do you want bacon?
  • I’m here for you if you want to drink a bottle of wine.
  • We probably would NOT say that heaven gained an angel or that Colleen is looking down on us because that always makes us think that we want her with us instead of up there or wonder what she’s been saying behind our backs, like what's she saying? what did you hear?
  • Or if we decide to take a more tactful route, we’d say something simple, like “thinking of you” or “sending hugs.”
  • Or we might say something simple with a little humor. On Colleen’s birthday, one friend said, “Happy birthday to one hell of a big sister.” It summed up our sister perfectly and made us smile.

How to Help a Friend in Grief

We recently shared our thoughts and commentary on the Grief Police. In our experience, people were generally bewildered about how to react to our grief, but there were a few shining examples of friends and family who got it right. Don’t be scared of those of us in grief! You can do this.

We want to share a few examples of helpful and kind things people said or did before and following our sister’s death that can be considered as ways to help a friend who is grieving. 

- Send a card. What you write in the card isn't even as important as the gesture of sending one, so don’t let writer’s block stop you. In an informative and touching blog post on A Cup of Jo, Joanna Goddard’s sister, Lucy Kalanithi explains how comforting condolence cards can be to someone in grief.  

"Flip" the bird, available from

"Flip" the bird, available from

- Express your sympathy, anger, or frustration with what happened to your friend in the normal way you talk. We appreciated swearing and people who simply said “this sucks.” You don’t always need to try to say something profound, or even uplifting. Commiseration can be the best expression of friendship. But please don’t tell anyone, “I know exactly how you feel.”

- Drop off something simple to eat, preferably that could be used another day or frozen and in containers that don’t need to be returned. Coordinating meals with a group is also nice. Or just send beer or wine, which as we've said is always useful. In particular, we appreciated those who brought us food long after the funeral, once we had returned home and tried to return to our lives. Cooking for our families, like most daily chores, seemed overwhelming for months.

- Offer specific things that you can do like, “can I pick your kids up from school on Wednesday for a play date?” Taking the kids AWAY gives your friend a much needed moment to herself and may give the kids an outlet from all the stress that has surrounded them. We found that asking us to let you know if there is anything you can do to help was not actually helpful. So, you are proposing that we catalog our needs, factor in your talents and availability, and then notify you? If we even knew what we needed, that’d be a start.

- Invite us to socialize without any pressure or guilt if we decline. We did not always want to go out into the world, but it was nice to be included. Social anxiety is a common and normal feeling that accompanies grief. Sometimes being social left us feeling like no one related to our experience and reduced any desire for future outings. We worried about whether someone would say something about “it” or, maybe worse, nothing at all, and whether we would ugly cry in public. After socializing, we occasionally felt guilty because we weren’t “fun enough.” You can understand how sometimes it just felt easier to stay home.

- We know that it is difficult to know what to say, but we encourage you to try to say something because it is better than ignoring the large elephant in the room. Here are a few examples of helpful things that people said:

  • You don’t need to respond to this but I wanted to reach out and offer my help / support / presence.
  • I want to meet you for a silent walk. We won’t talk about anything difficult unless you want to.
  • I am thinking of you and want to talk when you are ready.

- Continue sending cards and emails and making phone calls. Grief goes on and on, comes on strong at different points, and feels isolating when everyone else seems to be living their perfect and normal lives. We appreciated the friends who consistently reached out many months or a year after our sister died with calls and emails checking in on us or letting us know they were thinking of us. Some grievers don’t want a lot of attention but others do want to talk about it with a friend. Some days the same person may want attention and other days they want none. In any case, it is probably safe to tell your friend just that you are thinking of them because that in itself is comforting.

We relied on our friends to support us and were able to create this list because of their kind words and gestures. We hope that this list helps you to be a great friend to someone who has lost a very special person.