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Coping with special occasions after someone has died

Grief doesn’t have a time limit – feelings of grief can strike at any time. They can be especially powerful on special occasions, like birthdays, anniversaries and more.

You might think that grief only happens immediately after someone you love has died. But grief is a life-long process and nothing you’ll ever ‘get over’. That’s why every year on birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, feelings can be stirred up again.

Here’s some guidance about how to cope with special occasions after someone has died.

What days will be difficult for grieving tamariki / children and mātātahi / young people?

There are the obvious days, like their loved one’s birthdays, wedding anniversaries, the anniversary of the date they died, and whānau holidays, like Kirihimete / Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali and Eid al-Fitr.

But there are also less obvious ones, especially for tamariki / children when they’re faced with milestones that their loved one isn’t there for. Like the last day of the kura / school term, their birthday or graduation day. As they grow older, more milestones will happen, like their wedding day, first job day, or the birth of their taitamaiti / child.

Every occasion that their loved one isn’t there for is important and it can feel hard when they’re approaching and happening.

Remember or avoid?

Everyone grieves in their own way which means everyone feels differently about anniversaries and special days. Try to be mindful of upcoming days and help your tamariki / children to decide how to handle the day in a way that works for them and you.

Your taitamaiti / child might feel like it’s too painful to focus on the person on that day. In which case, you could do something completely different to what you’d normally do, to help avoid overwhelming memories and feelings.

Or your taitamaiti / child might want to do something that connects them with their loved one. (We’ve got some ideas below for how you could mark this day.)

Sometimes in a whānau everyone feels differently about how they want to spend the day. If this happens, you could agree to do something at some point in the day to remember, like the morning. This gives everyone time to remember and connect with the person who died while also giving an out for those people who don’t want to mark it.

Be kind to yourselves: choosing to mark a special day or not doesn’t mean your or your child’s love and grief are any more or less than anyone else’s. Expect to feel differently every time an anniversary comes round. What worked for you all last year might not work this, or next, year.

If you feel comfortable, tell friends, colleagues and teachers about the days that are important to your whānau. This way, they can reach out with support at these tough times.

Looking after yourself on anniversaries and special days

Although you might be more focused on the grief of your tamariki / children, it’s important that you look after and be kind to yourself like you’re encouraging your tamariki / children to. Try to carve out some relaxation time on these days, whether that’s a bubble bath, chatting to friends, cooking a nice meal or treating yourselves to a takeaway. Doing this on these days can make it feel a little easier.

The special days are difficult for you too. By looking after yourself and doing things that help you, it shows tamariki / children that they can do it too.

White towel wrapped woman stepping into a bath

10 ways to mark birthdays and special days

  1. Remember the person who died by cooking their favourite meal or treat or ordering their favourite takeaway.
  2. Create an area that’s dedicated to remembering the person who died. Light a candle, print photos, or place items that remind you of them. Spend time alone or together in this place, maybe sharing special memories.
  3. Start a memory book that you add to every year. Ask whānau and friends to send you messages and memories about your loved one. Pop them in a book or write them down, print them and stick them up around your home.
  4. Listen to their favourite music. If your child’s old enough, they could create a playlist of all their loved one’s favourite songs.
  5. Write your loved one a card. Either make or buy one and write them a message on their special day. You could take it to their grave or where their ashes are scattered.
  6. Gather other people around you who want to remember the person who died. Even if you can’t be together in the same room, a video call can help connect you.
  7. Start a memory box, which you add to on every special occasion. Fill it with items that remind you of the person, like photos, shells or tickets.
  8. Create a digital memory board or mark the special day on social media with a post. Ask others for their photos or memories. Use this to create their life story in photos.
  9. Write them a letter, poem or song. A good prompt to use is: “If you came back for 5 minutes, I’d tell you…”
  10. Spend the money you would have spent on your loved one on yourself instead. Treat yourself to something special that makes you feel connected to or reminds you of the person who died.