Losing a spouse comes with undefinable pain. However, that pain doesn’t just fade away like it does when we stub a toe or bump an elbow. This is especially true in the first twelve months after our person is gone. In fact, the first 365 days can be so challenging that there’s a term for it—it’s called the year of firsts.
What Is “The Year of Firsts?”
The name may speak for itself, but the “year of firsts” is all of the special occasions, holidays, and meaningful moments that occur in the first year after you lose a loved one. It includes the “big moments” like birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and holidays.
However, it isn’t just those major milestones. It also includes all of the “little moments” that occur too, like the first report cards that come home or the first concert you go to without that person by your side.
They say that once you make it through the first 365 days after a loss, the weight of your grief becomes lighter and easier to manage. Since I’m only eight months into widowhood, I can’t speak to that, but I can say that based on my experience so far, it doesn’t seem to matter how many “firsts” you get through — the next one hurts just as much as all of the previous ones.
What Helps Me Cope With The “Firsts”
When my therapist first brought up the “Year of Firsts,” I wasn’t sure how to react. In fact, the idea of going through an entire year of events without my partner made me feel physically ill. But, at the same time, I knew I would have to find a way to “power through” for myself and the children.
I’ll be honest, each holiday and milestone hits differently. As time has passed, though, I have discovered a few things that help me cope with each “first” I encounter.
You can never anticipate what emotions you will experience on any given day as a widow. However, you can plan ahead for the days you know will be exceptionally difficult.
So, each time I know a special day is coming up, I try to make plans with friends or family. Over the past nine months, I have gone to visit my in-laws for holidays like Thanksgiving, taken a week-long road trip to get away during the week between Christmas and New Years, enjoyed dinner and board games at friends’ homes, grabbed coffee with my partner’s closest friends, and planned an entire day of activities my partner would have loved in honor of her birthday.
I have found that making plans in some form or fashion for special days does two things: it ensures I’m not alone on what will likely be a very painful day, and it gives me something to focus on besides my pain and heartache.
I am a firm believer in therapy and have been seeing a therapist consistently for over five years. Naturally, the focus of my therapeutic work has shifted from growth to survival since Emily passed. We’ve done a lot of grief-specific therapy, and that has helped tremendously.
However, I’ve also learned that planning therapy sessions right before or after milestone days in my “year of firsts” really gives me the space to either plan ahead for these challenging days or process them after the fact. I’m very lucky to have a therapist who is flexible, accommodating, and empathetic enough to do this. It’s the only way I’ve been able to survive a few especially difficult moments in my grief journey, like Valentine’s Day and our anniversary.
Visiting The Cemetery
Before Emily died, I was not the kind of person to go to cemeteries and visit loved ones. It just felt uncomfortable and sad. But, for whatever reason, I find it cathartic to go spend time at Emily’s grave and talk to her. I go as often as I can, but I make a special point to go on special occasions.
When I received a job offer for a position I applied for right before Emily died, I told her first and took a small bottle of champagne with me because she loved any excuse to “bring out the bubbles.” I’ve also gone to the cemetery to watch the season finale of one of our favorite shows with her, had picnics with her for certain occasions, and reminisced about ways we’ve celebrated holidays in years past.
Do What Helps You
The biggest thing I’ve learned from the past eight months is this: Everyone copes with loss differently. Because of this, I don’t think there’s a magic bullet to get you through the Year of Firsts or any part of the grieving process. However, I do think that sharing my experience with others can ignite ideas for others and possibly help them.
Regardless of how many of my suggestions you take, I hope you’ll carry this one with you: Do what helps you on the difficult days, and don’t worry about what others think or say. Grief impacts us all in different ways, and we can only survive it if we take care of ourselves.