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5 Great Ways to Remember My Brother on His Death Anniversary

anniversary difficult dates non-linear journey our words sibling loss Jan 17, 2023
remembering brother on his death anniversary

By Kim Hanlon

Grief anniversaries may look different each year


January 17th, 2023 is eleven years since my brother, Steven English, died. How it has been so long, I have no idea. I remember the dread of the first anniversary, and that unmoored feeling of not knowing what to do, both for my grief as well as for my parents’ grief. 


We, my parents and I, always like to be together. That first year I believe was the only year we marked it in Truckee, where my parents lived and where Steven had died. The three of us went to a restaurant in Tahoe City where we had gone as a family with friends on vacations growing up. I remember looking out at the lake and feeling Steven along with that acute pain. I know I took a picture of the lake that day, and even though I have been to that dock many times in my life, one glance at that photo and I somehow know it was taken on that first anniversary. There is something holy feeling in that picture, and also a reminder of that pain and confusion I felt in my grief that day.


It felt “right” being in the mountains that first year, however subsequent years we have always been in Alameda, where I now live. Truckee feels too triggering for my parents, especially being in their house on the anniversary of when Steven died in his sleep while visiting them. 


The main thing we care about is to be together. The first several years I had mixed feelings about how we marked Steven’s anniversary and birthday. I was longing for something more intentional, with photos, and stories, and talking about grief. I followed my parents’ leads, and they were needing more to be together. The 17th is such a difficult day that much more is… too much.


And for me (and I assume my parents as well) the grief is, yes, for his death, but also those final months of his life. The unmet hopes, dreams, expectations we each had for him, his healing, and our relationships with him. There are so many layers to our grief


In a way I honor his anniversary by healing my grief, and with the healing I have done already. The Grief Recovery Method ®  allowed me to be more open with my grief, less blinded by the incomplete pain within the relationship and loss, and equipped with tools to move through the waves while knowing that even tsunamis don’t last forever. 


When I think of how to honor Steven, I think of: 

  • What do I want? 
  • Why do I want to honor him? 
  • How do I want to honor him?
  • What do I anticipate being particularly difficult, and how can I plan for that?


Some thoughts when reflecting on these, are that:

  • I miss him, always. 
  • I want to feel close to him, because our relationship didn’t die with him
  • I want to honor him with my life, and keep his memory alive in my actions
  • I want to feel close to others who loved him. Definitely my parents, and also knowing our other friends and family think of him still. 


So what would help me with these? To do things that help me feel close to him, to share him, to feel my grief. How can I reflect on what I appreciate about my relationship with Steven, my grief for him, and how I can foster those? 


By sharing my list of who I plan to honor Steven this 11th anniversary, I hope you learn, find healing and ideas for your own grief. 


5 ways to honor my brother on his death anniversary

  1. Time with my parents. We can be together, know we are each hurting, share memories, and hug. We each knew Steven the best - in a shared way only family can, as well as in our own unique ways. I would love to spend more time with his friends on another day, to hear of sides of Steven that only friends get to see. 
  2. Sushi with my husband and kid, Jack. I have many happy memories eating sushi with Steven, and it is a food that helps me feel close to him. I can envision the hesitation I felt about trying sushi the first time Steven introduced me to it, the admiration I had for him has he picked out the rolls he thought I would like, and the love I felt with him choosing to spend time with his little sister and share something he loved. I cherish reliving those moments, as well as sharing this important set of core memories with my family. 
  3. A morning dedicated to him and me. A walk by the bay thinking of Steven and what he would advise me on at this point of my life. I always can feel in my heart what he would say to me when I think of what is on my heart and mind. Today, he “told” me to look for unexpected beauty - I saw a bloom on a shrub that I have never seen bloom before (I used to be a bit of a plant nerd), a bush growing out of crack in the sidewalk, and the crystal clear San Francisco skyline across the bay after what has been weeks of intense rain here. 
  4. Share his legacy. Steven had a big heart and a hilarious sense of humor. I didn’t always get his way of being silly, but now I enjoy adopting that form of humor with family. Sharing bits of Steven help me feel him and it means the world to have others know about him. 
  5. Watch a Sharks game, wearing my jersey. I will have to work out this one, but I do want to catch a Sharks hockey game this week. As avid fans growing up, we spent a lot of time watching games together, either at the Tank or on the couch with a large pizza shared between us. Hockey was an important part of our childhoods, from waking at the crack of dawn for Steven's roller hockey games to later watching with pride as he skated with his team at Sharks Ice to cheering on the Sharks either as a pair or with the rest of our family. I haven't watched many games in recent years, and hope to introduce my kid to the sport to further that bond and tie to those memories. 


I used to put so much pressure on this - deciding how to spend the anniversary. I think that added to my grief - it highlighted what I had lost. It can augment the sense of hopelessness that grievers often feel after loss. Planning what to do on Steven's anniversary highlighted he was dead. Not doing something for his death anniversary felt like erasing someone who meant so much to me. And the fog of grief made it difficult to parse out what felt right. 


What if we treat our relationship after death as we had in life? (Albeit healthy relationships.) What if we can envision a healthy relationship with our person? Boundaries. Periods of closeness, and periods when there is less contact? Not needing to be perfect, but showing up? Letting it be a mess sometimes? In reflection, I personally don’t care quite as much about exactly what I do on this day, as long as I get to be with my parents, and I feel close to Steven. 


How can you find a way to honor your loved one? How can you feel close? Or if it is a less-than-loved-one you grieve, how can you honor your grief and feel supported as well?


If your heart is having trouble comprehending how you can possibly not be a puddle of grief on your anniversary, I would like you to know a few things. 1) Grief is rough and it is normal and natural to be a puddle sometimes. 2) There are ways to heal parts of grief so you can hold capacity for hope, joy, and lightness again. The evidence-based Grief Recovery Method is what helped Ilana and myself reach that point. Schedule a complimentary discovery call to learn more. 


In short, I want to honor Steven, honor my grief, honor myself and the part of him that is forever a part of me. By honoring myself, I honor him. I know how he would want me to live, and by being true to that I can tap into his wisdom and love. 


Your own anniversary plans will look unique to you and your own grief. I encourage you to reflect on what would be helpful to you. If you want more guidance specific to anniversaries, our Grief & Gratitude workbook provides 10 tools for preparing for difficult grief dates. You don’t have to do this alone. Grief is so hard, and even with tools and a decade of grief work you might be like me and still sometimes find yourself needing to read the cafe menu three times before you make sense of the shapes on the page and order food. Totally happened to me yesterday. 


Thank you for reading, I hope you learned something, and at the very least I appreciate the opportunity to share my grief. In doing so, I hope others feel less alone, less “weird” in their grief, and/or more empathetic to others who have lost loved ones. And, I also get to share a piece of Steven's legacy, and that is pretty darn special. 


P.S. Here are some photos of unexpected beauty I took on my morning walk today: