Q: My father died 11 years ago, and I wonder when I’ll stop grieving. The worst times are Christmas, his birthday, and his death date. I dread these times of year and still get extremely sad and depressed. Do you have any advice for how to make these dates a little easier?
A: I tried something earlier this month that worked wonders for me on the first anniversary of my mom’s passing. But first, I need to give you some background.
When I was a preschooler and Mama wanted to get out of the house, we’d go riding around. Our greatest adventures involved chain gangs, crews of convicts working by the road. As soon as we spotted the men, we’d rush to the convenience store and buy cartons of cigarettes for them. Then we’d toss the packs to them from the car and hightail it. This was so thrilling, and it taught me the joy of spontaneous giving.
Two hallmarks of Mama’s life were her generosity toward “the least among us” and the way she gave without judgment. A colorful example is when she delivered cigarettes to a friend who’d just been arrested for murdering a boyfriend. When I got older, I became mortified that she’d give cigarettes to people. Why not a fruit basket or some cash in a card? No, it was always cancer sticks, and the folks were always delighted to get them.
Fast forward to three weeks ago, the morning that marked the first anniversary of her death. I awoke with a crushing heaviness in my heart and head. I went through the early hours as if wearing a lead apron. I knew I had to dream up something that would lift it off of me. Then I had it: I’d go get cigarettes and distribute the loot to the most down-and-out individuals I could find.
Suddenly I was giddy at the thought of my mission. It would be the perfect way to celebrate her and make the day far less maudlin. So off I went, with “gifts” in hand, into some dicey areas of Southwest Atlanta. The best conversation of the day was with a homeless man camped outside an abandoned strip club. The whole undertaking was just as exciting as our escapades with the inmates.
This “experiment” helped my grief and brought about unexpected gifts. First of all, it forced me to slow down and be hyper-attentive to the people on the margins; this enabled me to see things and humans I’d never noticed before. I was literally scouting for outcasts. Mama would have loved that.
I also marveled at the connections formed with complete strangers when I offered the goods without any agenda or strings attached. If questioned about my motive, I had the opportunity to tell them about Mama. I kept it short, “Mama liked to give cigarettes to those in need,” I said. Hearing myself say this amused me to no end, and the strangers always smiled.
There was one caveat: I gave tobacco only to those for whom a smoke would be the least of their worries. I never offered it to younger folks. I know some will disapprove of what I did, and I must confess that I like the slightly subversive element of it. Mama would have loved that, too.
Of course, this activity didn’t just erase the sadness. But taking a creative approach to the grief that day made all the difference. Instead of wallowing, I vowed to turn the problem on its head. I realized that I should try the technique on other challenges as well. It works because it takes you out of yourself and your skewed perspective. It reverses the negative currents.
Consider applying this kind of strategy to your grief. What did your father enjoy doing most? What were key values you learned from him, and how can you put those into greater action? How can you honor some of the fondest memories of your time together?
Start tackling the situation like this, and you’ll begin to get relief. And as a friend once said, “I done used up all my sad times. It’s time to get happy.”
Send your questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lauretta Hannon, a resident of Powder Springs, is the bestselling author of The Cracker Queen — A Memoir of a Jagged, Joyful Life and a keynote speaker. Southern Living has named her “the funniest woman in Georgia.” See more at thecrackerqueen.com.