3 Ways to Help a Friend Through a Difficult Anniversary

First published on Maria Shriver's website ⎟525 Recommend This

I got married on October 3, 1992, in almost pitch darkness.

I had always wanted an evening wedding with candlelight. Aside from the romantic reasons, people generally look better in candlelight. Earlier that day, I’d had a huffy little tête-à-tête over it with my childhood church choir director, Judy. Judy was a reedy, elderly woman who had commanded the pipe organ for no less than four decades. We were sitting on the last row of pews, and she was holding the one tool in existence that could dim or brighten the huge Gothic chandeliers of the nave. She reached over to the control panel anchored on the seatback in front of us and twisted a knob until the church resembled an indoor arena.

“Weddings,” she cackled, “should take place in the light.”

“But this is my wedding,” I replied, “and I want it to take place in candlelight. Judy gave me a wicked smile. She took the tool and turned the knob all the way down, which made the light perfect, given the sunshine streaming through the windows at 3:00 in the afternoon. She then slipped this tool in her pocket and vanished.

Later, when a crescent moon had risen, I found myself standing at the rear of the nave with my father, desperately blinking to make the pupils of my eyes dilate.

“Don’t worry, honey,” my father said, meaning to calm any last minute jitters I might have. “Just look at Wayne.”

“I can’t see Wayne,” I hissed back. As Judy pounded out Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary, pausing dramatically when my father and I were supposed to begin groping our way down the aisle, Dad turned to my Aunt Pat, the wedding director.

“Get the lights on!” he ordered in his surgeon’s voice. And Aunt Pat did, after clawing her way through every drawer in a downstairs office, manage to find the elusive tool and rush back. She cranked up the dimmer switch, ironically, at the exact moment the minister declared, “I now pronounce you man and wife!” which made all of the guests start in their seats and look at the at the ceiling in wonder, half expecting, I imagine, to see angels fluttering in the rafters.

I can laugh about the memory now, even though my marriage ended terribly eight years later. Almost invariably, I cry at the same time, but mainly the feeling is one of deep joy. Contrary to the old adage about how it’s better to have loved and lost, love is never really lost, not by death or disease, anyway. Wayne’s brain tumor, the surgery, his suicide, the miscarriage of a long awaited pregnancy—all of it and more happened in a relatively short time, and I found myself, then, in true darkness. I thought I would never laugh again, and no amount of sunshine streaming through the windows mattered.

The third of October and other painful anniversaries became days I dreaded. Anyone who has been through the death of a loved one, no matter how it happens, has these bleak days for a while.

Friends aren’t always sure of how to help. Here are three tips I can offer, having been blessed with several friends who knew instinctively what to do:

1. Let your friend be in control. Ask what, if anything, she would like to do. Rituals that seem weird to you can be comforting in ways you don’t realize. On Wayne’s birthday, the year he died, my friend Suzanne and I bought cupcakes and candles, and hiked to an outcropping of boulders in the Rockies. We found a crevice between two rocks, where we lit the candles, cupping our hands against the cold April wind. I couldn’t speak. Suzanne stood up, slight and small against the huge backdrop of open sky and valley. “Be at peace, Wayne,” she said, simply, and two blackbirds swooped by, close enough that we could almost see their feathers.

2. Mention it. Don’t think your friend has forgotten, if she fails to, or that by bringing it up, you’ll add to the grief. The opposite is usually true. You can say "I know this day must be hard for you; I’m thinking of you. Is there any way I can help?" You’ll give your friend a true gift, whether she can acknowledge it or not, by affirming both the life of the person she loved and her feelings of loss. A friend of Wayne’s has sent me, for fourteen years running, a card around the third of October. Inside, he writes “thinking of you.” I treasure these cards.

3. Allow your friend some latitude. Grief, especially at first, does not bring out the best in the majority of us. It makes us sad, cranky, self-absorbed, neglectful and hard to be with. If your friend snaps at you or brushes you off, let it go. I can almost guarantee her gratitude, if not at that moment, at the recollection of your kindness in keeping track of the day and in reaching out with sympathy and support.

I think back to my wedding and cannot help but smile now, having weathered the grief and found love again, with a man who’s funny and sweet and strong. In the wedding video, I look like a gauzy apparition floating alone through a cave— my father, Wayne, and the bridesmaids and groomsmen were all wearing black, unfortunately.

But maybe in hindsight, the wedding mirrored life in a larger way. It seems we are destined to float along, all of us, in a certain amount of unalterable darkness. We don’t fully understand each other or ourselves. We don’t know what the future holds. While we can’t crank up the lights on a friend’s grief and make it go away in an instant, we can hold out a candle. A candle may be all she needs to take the next step forward.