May 16, 1986 is the day that broke my life into two discrete parts—before my parents died in a car accident and after. The time I was a kid who only thought about singing my heart out and making my friends laugh—and when I was no longer that kid. When I lived in lightness versus a reality of emotions beyond my readiness. When I appeared just like everyone else and when even the cute clothes and gifts people bought to make me feel better could not hide my difference.
Thirty-one years later—after a lifetime of support and love and embracing this moment as part of my life story, I continue to seek something special to remember my parents, my people and how far I've come on this day. Some may say it's just like any other day. I disagree because I've tried that approach. I've shown up for a regular workday, only to feel empty and disconnected. Instead, I recognize and accept this is part of my life by doing something that is meaningful to me--and that has made a tremendous difference in my healing.
Over the years on May 16th…
I took a day off from school and went to a good crying movie.
I walked in Washington Square Park in the rain in my bright purple cap and gown—thinking of how proud my mom and dad would have been.
I planted flowers with my Aunt Marilyn so we could bring something new and beautiful into the world.
I recounted memories with close friend, Dave Adox, in the Grand Central StoryCorp booth on the 20-year mark.
And for the past few years, I've shared photos and feelings with my community of people who knew them and knew me then, with friends and neighbors I've met in recent years who were surprised to learn this part of my history. This has become the ritual that feels the most right for me—and it's what prompted me to write this piece now.
For those of you who may be deciding whether or not to create a ritual or way to honor anniversaries in your life, here are the reasons why this approach works for me:
1. Move beyond busy-ness to reconnect with the loss
No matter how together you are and how long ago you experienced this loss, it was a great loss and will always be there in some way. It's ok and in fact, necessary to find some time to fall apart, to feel the emotion and acknowledge the depth of the pain. When we're in our day to day busy-ness, we don't have the time to do just that. Clearing the decks and allowing yourself that space to be that person you were when you first felt the hurt can help you continue to move through it, wherever you are in the process. When I think about being that 11-year-old girl, who dragged her best friend away from the crowds and into the bathroom to say, "Who's going to take care of me?"—I'm back. And sometimes that's exactly where I need to be.
2. Honor how far you've come
You're that person who experienced the loss PLUS years of growth and processing and support. I use the anniversary as a moment to look back on those early days with pride to say, "I was there. And I didn't know if I would make it out of there. It was hard to see any light. But now I'm here and there's so much to love about where I am—and I created that." To build from there—if you have the power to get out of that unthinkable place and create a beautiful life, what other incredible things are you capable of doing?
3. Time to be grateful for your people
A wise friend once commented about my childhood, "It sounds like you had a community of people gathered around you who held hands and said, 'This girl will succeed.' And they did all they could to make it so." This image continues to be my answer to that little girl's question, "Who will take care of me?" "Everyone.", I tell her, "Everyone." From friends and neighbors in my hometown who flooded our home with love, laughter and piles of babka, to new friends who email and text to say—"I'm thinking of you today." The people in my life are what make it the life I want to live and I'm reminded of this every time I share thoughts and feelings on this day.
4. Teach our kids it's ok to grieve and to be sad
When my kids were small, I often would try to put on a brave face instead of showing whatever hard thing I was going through. While I still don't share it all—I've let more emotion shine through so that my girls can see that we can go through hard things and come out the other end. I want them to know that crying and expressing emotion can actually be a sign of strength and a necessary part of life. My older daughter hugged me while I teared-up reading a poem at my grandma's grave and my little one held my hand when I was missing my friend Dave who passed last year. We talk about my parents often throughout the year. I also bring them into whatever ritual I choose on the anniversary so they can be a part of it and understand what it means to our family. In our culture, we're not great at teaching children that death is part of life, but because of my experience—I think my kids are developing a language and empathy around grieving and loss that I hope will help them cope later in their years.
Part of my ritual is to accept how each May 16th evolves—whether it's hard, beautiful, powerful or just fine. No matter what it is, on that day, I build a bridge to connect these two parts of my life and that bridge is the knowing that I was and am deeply loved. Even though my life is split in two, I am whole.