What To Do on a Death Anniversary

I had a hard time deciding where I wanted to be on the day that marked the last in a year of firsts – the one year anniversary of my fiancé’s death.

One never really knows when grief will claw its way out of its carefully contained space in the heart and squeeze, but there is a strong likelihood that a “first” will bring with it an increased dose of that familiar feeling of loss. For me, the first Christmas, the first birthday, the first Valentine’s Day without Jeff were all days to “get through” without falling apart.

I spent many of those “firsts” in Europe and Asia, fulfilling a dream to see the world and bringing a bit of Jeff along with me – both in spirit and in a pocket-sized urn with a sunflower on it.

Water Purification, Bali
A water purification ceremony in Bali, Indonesia

While I am not quite done with my world travels, I did know that the one-year anniversary of Jeff’s last day was a day that I needed to be back home in America. Thinking it best to be near my family in the case that I fell apart, I packed my backpack for the last time in Bangkok and headed for the states.

The question was: Where in America should I go?

Cannon Beach, Ore. where I almost spent a one-year death anniversary
Jeff in Cannon Beach, Oregon two months before he was diagnosed with cancer

Where To Go on the One-Year Anniversary of a Death

I thought about going back to Cannon Beach in Oregon where I spread Jeff’s ashes. I thought about going to his hometown of Philadelphia or my hometown of Portland or where we lived together in Chicago.

In the end, I followed a sign.

I found my answer within one of Jeff’s books. You see, I plan to read all of them – all 409 of the books that Jeff kept in neat stacks in his bedroom. Through those stacks of books, Jeff has introduced me to Kurt Vonnegut and “Slaughterhouse-Five,” to Haruki Murakami and “Kafka on the Shore,” and – during my trip through Saigon – to Seth Grahame-Smith and “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter”.

On my own, I would not have picked up a book about the 16th President of the United States hunting vampires, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book that weaved together real events in Lincoln’s life to create an alternate reality. I was in my Saigon hotel room reading late into the night when I found a real quotation said by Lincoln that led me to set down the book and buy a plane ticket to Washington, DC, and the Abraham Lincoln Memorial.

Lincoln Memorial where I spent a one-year death anniversary
Abraham Lincoln, who lost two sons, wrote a letter about grief to a mother who lost two sons during the Civil War

Lincoln’s quotation to a grieving mother reads:

“In this sad world of ours sorrow comes to all and it often comes with bitter agony. Perfect relief is not possible except with time. You cannot now believe that you will ever feel better. But this is not true. You are sure to be happy again. Knowing this, truly believing it will make you less miserable now. I have had enough experience to make this statement.”

You Never Know What You Will Feel on a Death Anniversary

The morning of June 4th opened with the sun shining just as brightly as it did on the last day of Jeff’s life. On that painful day one year ago, the warm sunshine felt incongruous – out of place with the cold, aching loneliness that enveloped me.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial where I spent a one-year death anniversary
A view of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC

One year later, though, the sunshine felt light and welcoming on my face as I set out for the Abraham Lincoln Memorial. I expected to feel a lot of emotions, but I didn’t expect happiness. Nevertheless, tipping my face up toward the sun, happiness was exactly what I felt.  

Maybe it was that feeling of happiness – the knowledge that I wasn’t going to collapse under the weight of another “first” – that caused me to make a last-minute, unplanned decision to take a side trip to Arlington National Cemetery.

Follow Your Heart on a Death Anniversary

Arlington National Cemetery
The National Military Cemetery of the United States

Though my brain never allowed me to make the connection, Washington, DC made so much sense for me on this one-year death anniversary. I’m so glad that I followed my heart.

Because among the veterans buried at the United States military cemetery are two of my great-grandfathers alongside two of my great-grandmothers.

Before going to the Lincoln Memorial, I first paid my respects to William and Hannah Doolittle, who occupy a plot near our distant relative Jimmy Doolittle – the general and aviation expert who led the first retaliatory strike on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Arlington National Cemetery where I spent a one-year death anniversary
Graves of my great-grandparents Hannah and William Doolittle

Perhaps due to the distant relation to the legendary pilot, William and Hannah were laid to rest in a very central location in Arlington National Cemetery – just outside the shadow of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Tomb of the Unknown Solider in Arlington National Cemetery
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

On the other hand, John and Helen Nelson are buried on a quiet plot of land in the furthest reaches of the cemetery.

Arlington National Cemetery
My great-grandfather John Nelson’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC

As I made my way out there, I imagined sitting down with my great-grandmother Helen Lenora Nilsson Nelson in complete privacy and – among the other things that I would talk with her about – thank her for giving me my last name.

There was just one problem with that scenario: A construction team digging up one of the cemetery roads had completely blocked access to Section 50. One of the crewmembers told me in no uncertain terms that I would not be able to reach the graves of my great-grandparents.

The setback rocked me. Though the stop at Arlington was unplanned, I had decided to spread Jeff’s ashes – those that I had carried with me on my travels in a little sunflower urn – on Helen’s grave.

Much like the whims that led me to take a trip to DC and to stop at Arlington, I followed a whim and – in search of access to section 50 – I walked off the cemetery property into the untamed fields that surround the acres of gravestones.

Sunflower field
A sunflower field just outside Arlington Cemetery property

That’s when I stumbled on the field of sunflowers. I burst out laughing at this. If Jeff had any say in the way that I spent that day, he would have ensured that I stumbled on a field of sunflowers, my symbol of Jeff’s spiritual presence.

It reminded me of the day that I drove all over a small town in France in search of a church that is historically significant to the novel I am writing – only to take a wrong turn onto a small road surrounded by sunflower fields while my GPS definitively declared: “You have reached your destination”.

Arlington National Cemetery
A sunflower and the urn on top of my great-grandmother’s grave

Standing in the ungroomed land just outside of Arlington National Cemetery, I knew without a doubt that I would find access to section 50 by way of a detour through a field of sunflowers. And I did. Well, we did. I strongly felt Jeff’s presence as I spread his ashes and tucked the urn and the metal sunflower into the gap between Helen’s gravestone and the grass.

One Last Sunset in the Last of a Year of Firsts

After the emotion of the gravesite visits, I simply sat on the grass near the Lincoln Memorial for hours, reflecting on the past year and on my feelings that day.

Lincoln Memorial Washington, DC where I spent a one-year death anniversary
A quiet moment at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC

I still felt happiness in my heart rather than the grief grip that I had expected. I also felt a sense of relief that the last of the “firsts” were over. I noticed that leaving behind the ashes and the urn that I have carried with me for most of the year seemed to lighten the grief that I also carried with me.

From my peaceful perch near Lincoln, I sent messages back and forth with Jeff’s family members, sending a virtual hug to his brother in Chicago; smiling at a picture of the cardinals that visited Jeff’s mom on her porch near Philadelphia (cardinals are her symbol for Jeff’s spiritual presence); and wholeheartedly agreeing with Jeff’s father who, from his happy place on the Jersey Shore with his beloved wife and a jigsaw puzzle put together in Jeff’s honor, reframed the day by declaring it the one year anniversary of Jeff’s birth into a brand-new life.

Sunset in Washington, DC
The sun setting in Washington, DC

Still feeling happy and light, I meandered through the memorials for Martin Luther King Jr., Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson, watching the sunset on the Tidal Basin and on a beautiful day – the last in a year of firsts.

For more on grief and travel, please visit my page about grieving.

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    5 Comments on “What To Do on a Death Anniversary”

    1. Your year of “firsts” was so meaningful to me, an elderly Aunt of Lizzie.
      I have lived through two “year of firsts”. A testament that Lincoln’s quote to the grieving mother is very true . 1974 – Carl was 40. 2014 Bob was 80. I still carry both with me and feel the undeniable presence of these remarkable men in my life. Once in awhile buried deep grief raises it’s head and I pay the price , the very dear price of love. The laughter that some memories conjure up is the reward of two parts of my life well lived. Carl’s and my two daughters now grandmothers, plus three little great-granddaughters. Payment in full. I am happy every day.

    2. Thank you for sharing your year of the last first. I totally relate to that feeling… and I so admire you for sharing the pursuit of reading all of Jeff’s beloved books is.

    3. Words are insufficient to express what I am feeling while reading your blog.
      I’m happy your year of firsts are over. Jeff’s spirit will be with you always. May your journeys be happy and fulfilling. Thank you for giving Jeff some of the best days of his life. Always LLJ

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