Thursday, August 6, 2015

Commemorating the Anniversary of my Mom's Death

My mom died 15 years ago today.  After struggling with breast cancer for about two years, she had been admitted to the hospital a week before and had taken a very sharp decline a few days earlier.  I got the call from the nurse around 11am.  She was 51.  I was 23.

I celebrate my mom's birthday every year.  See my post from her birthday earlier this year.  My celebrations usually involve a trip to Dairy Queen to get what my mom used to call a "recommended daily dose of Dairy Queen."
My ritual: Peanut Buster Parfait

I also commemorate the anniversary of her death.

The practice of commemoration

My sense is that few Americans these days do much to commemorate the anniversaries of their loved ones' deaths.  This is, however, a common practice in many cultures, especially in Asian countries.

I've been reading a little bit of Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion.  It's not rigorous academic philosophy by any means, but de Botton makes a great point about the loneliness and isolation of grieving for many people in secular cultures today.  This goes for religious people in predominantly secular cultures as well, but it's especially poignant for those of us who find ourselves without a religious community.

Learning from traditional religion

Many religious traditions provide communal support and structured processes to help individuals through the grieving process.  But secular culture has as of yet offered comparatively little in the way of grief assistance (outside of therapy, anyway; I am in no way denying the benefits of mental healthcare, but we may need more than that).  Americans, in particular, are both so afraid to talk about death and so entrenched in what I call the atomic theory of human nature that the idea of communal assistance with one's acknowledgement of a loved one's death is likely to be seen as pointlessly quaint at best and harmful at worst.  "Why can't you just move on?  Why do you burden others with your troubles?" some might ask.  Of course, we do move on, but that doesn't mean we're not still grieving.  And death is a burden we all share no matter how much we try to ignore it.

I agree with de Botton that traditional religions have a lot to teach us, even if we personally dispense with the beliefs and rituals of those religions (something the Richard Dawkinses of the world don't seem to understand).  It also seems appropriate to learn from religion given my mom's Catholic identity, which always formed part of who she was but didn't incline her to the obnoxiously judgmental side of religion.  As she always taught me, it doesn't matter what you believe so long as you're a good person.

We're all in this together

One of the greatest lessons of many religions is that we're all in this together.  We all deal with death, so why not help each other through it?  Or as one of my mom's favorite bands, The Beatles, might say, "I get by with a little help from my friends."

So what might contemporary secular versions of communal grieving look like?  Jackie Oshry's "Why I Commemorate the Anniversary of my Father's Death on Social Media" makes an interesting suggestion about the use of social media as a communal grieving process.  I humbly suggest that one might also use one's blog to commemorate one's loved ones.  Commemorate = co + memory, remembering together?

This blog post and my maternal communion of ice cream may lack the depth and solemnity of many traditional religious customs and rituals, but they work just fine for me.  So, if you like, please join me in commemorating those loved ones who are gone but who have made you who you are.


  1. I remember my parents on their birthdays and the days of their deaths. My mom died on Aug 31 1996. She was 55.

    Oddly enough, Dairy Queen was our place for a treat. Mom would occasionally keep me out of school for a day of fun which inevitable ended up at Dairy Queen.

    1. Thanks for sharing your memory, Cheryl. I'm sure Dairy Queen has been good for a lot of parent-child relationships!

  2. I have lost three of my four grandparents. I remember feeling conflicted, especially, about how my maternal grandfather died. He had a heart attack, then dealt with the repercussions of that and finally succumbed months later. He suffered terrible physical pain most of that time, yet that long, dragged-out, painful period of suffering also gave him a chance to say goodbye to all of us and make his peace with the inevitable. I had never seen my grandfather cry before one day my cousin and I were visiting him in the hospital. I think he said he'd cried only once or twice before in his adult life and I believe him. But to see those barriers fall, to see him allow himself to be vulnerable and openly express such emotion in front of us, made me feel like maybe there was some purpose and meaning to that prolonged period of suffering. It was painful and awful, yes, but it also gave him the chance to allow himself to be more fully human and to connect with himself, his own emotions, and us, his loved ones, in a way that he'd never allowed himself to do before.

    1. That's a beautiful story, Brandon. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Hiya Ethan,

    I was just clicking around your site. I really miss your posts when you don't put something up. I think it's been 7 days since the last post. Anyway...

    This post is very moving. I often question the grieving process. Like...Do we ever get over the loss of a loved one? I feel like I don't. Not for direct blood relatives at least. I mean, my grandparents each passed over a decade ago and I literally still think about it. And it still makes me sad or whatever.

    I guess it means that grieving doesn't mean that we get over. I do think that we Americans have different ways of grieving. We always observed our loved one's birthdays. My maternal grandparents and paternal great-grandmother.

    It's beautiful that you have ice cream on your mom's birthday. I cherish the memories I have of my loved ones. I remember my grandparents would drink sweet creamy coffee in the mornings while reading a paper. I have coffee for them sometimes.

    <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kyanna. I'm hoping to get another post up tonight or tomorrow.

      I think you're right that grieving is never really over. The funeral director for my mom's funeral told me, "You're never going to stop loving your mom." I think he was right.

      That's a nice way to honor your grandparents! It's odd that grieving is something everyone does but we seldom talk about. Thanks for sharing.