A few hours into Father’s Day, having seen a million “my dad is awesome” posts on social media – mine included – I wondered: what must this be like for people who have lost their dads? I also think about this on Mother’s Day – where the enthusiasm of other people’s celebrations meets a day when your loss is sharpest and at its most private.
I thought about it again, a couple of days ago, when it was my wedding anniversary. It’s not a national celebration and I don’t share my anniversary with any other friends or family. But, since my husband Rob passed away in 2015, my wedding anniversary is still one of four Dark Days. I named them after Luke in the Gilmore Girls; he has a “dark day” when he disappears once a year without a trace, and it turns out it’s his father’s death anniversary. In order of intensity, from extremely bad to “this is shit but I can deal with it”, are his death anniversary in May, both our birthdays in December and our wedding anniversary in July.
I’m not unique – everyone has their own version of a Dark Day, beyond Mother’s and Father’s Day, whether it’s divorce, miscarriage or any other event that holds a sharp loss rubber-stamped into your existence. But I have learned the hard way, how to survive these particular days when the world is living its best life. At first, I struggled with the idea of the Dark Days. After Rob passed away, I lost a lot of time to grief in that first year. Honestly, I don’t remember most of it. Sure, I went to work and, by evidence of me still being here, ate, slept and breathed oxygen, but I wasn’t actually here. When people refer to 2015/2016, my eyes glaze over as if I’d spent that year orbiting the Earth. But at the end of the first year, I had lost 12 months and didn’t want to lose any more. When I realised that, in addition to those 12 months, there were now going to be four days out of the year – 96 hours – that were going to be black holes in my life, I was indignant.
My wedding anniversary coincided with a big family get-together and I was a massive bitch to everyone
I wanted to reclaim this lost time, so at first I tried to push myself. I actually tried to project-manage my own grief by doing things that were productive – so, making social plans. I posted tributes to him on social media because I didn’t want people to forget about him, or I’d hang out with friends and family because apparently being alone was not healthy.
These days were never easy. They still carry a sense of dread because at the beginning; there was an inescapable depression that lingered for weeks before the actual day itself. The dread, when I think about it, was being unable to reconcile that I wasn’t in control of my grief. I tried to outrun the depression as if it was chasing me with a giant butterfly net. Unsurprisingly, all of these tactics failed. Last year was a stupendous example of that. My wedding anniversary coincided with a big family get-together and I was a massive bitch to everyone. I spent Rob’s death anniversary with my parents and, as wonderful as they were, all I wanted to do was be on my own.
The thing is, I understand why people have rules around grief and loss – they make sense of a terrible, senseless thing that has happened to you. But, at some point, this stopped working for me and I had to take charge of my own narrative. Being around loved ones wasn’t better than being alone, so I stopped trying so hard to make plans on those days. It didn’t have to mean that I holed myself up at home – instead I took myself off for walks, talked to people who didn’t know Rob and me when we were a couple, went for yoga and ate brownies by the river. I also confronted my loss and instead found myself comforted in places or things that reminded me most of him – the duck pond in my local park or I’d make one of his favourite meals.
I decided to take myself off social media. Facebook is the world’s biggest frenemy on days when you are trying to forget what has happened. I woke up on my wedding anniversary to Facebook’s infernal “Seven years ago today…” with a picture of me in my wedding dress. “Not today, Satan,” I said and closed the app down. I didn’t open it for the rest of the day and I didn’t engage on Instagram. That was a first because, previously, I saw not engaging with social media on a Dark Day as a cop-out. Now, I just look at it as time saved – almost buying myself back this time I’m losing to grief.
Above all, I’m trying to stop thinking of a Dark Day as a black void with nothing good in it. The Dark Day is about absence, that’s true. But it’s also a reminder of a time when I had someone I loved and something good was in my life. I don’t know that the loss ever stops being sharp, but remembering that love in a way that’s right for me allows the tiniest sliver of light in.
Sali Hughes is away