A Time of ‘Firsts’

A Time of ‘Firsts’

by Dr. Sandi Howlett

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged

to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”

Nelson Mandela


The year following the death of a loved one is filled with ‘firsts’.   There are the obvious ones like holidays, anniversaries and birthdays.  While they are big and the build-up can be very emotional and painful, these predictable days also afford an opportunity to plan and prepare.  Some of the other firsts, the ones we hadn’t considered, may prove to be even more challenging.  They are too numerous to imagine and they often arrive in ambush fashion.

The first time you:

  • Walk away from the hospital or mortuary, having seen your loved one for the last time.
  • Deal with banks, attorneys, insurance companies and other businesses that require death certificates.
  • Are asked by a new acquaintance if you are married or how many children you have and for the first time in your life, are unsure how to respond.
  • Reach for the chocolate chip ice cream at the grocery store and then remember, that it was what HE liked, not you.
  • Hear the ‘fight song’ for your teen’s school…and remember that for your child, there will be no graduation ceremony this or any other year.
  • Start to call your mom (retired nurse) after your own visit to the doctor as she always reassured you and interpreted what the doctor said.
  • Out of habit, set the dinner table for three, when there are two now.
  • Are faced with buying a car (or major home repair) by your self for the first time ever and are lost at how to even begin the process.
  • End up burning $29 worth of chicken from Costco because you had no idea how to cook anything. She always bought the jumbo packs so that is what you did.
  • Hike or dine alone at the places the two of you used to share.
  • Receive a holiday card addressed to the two of you – the sender is from out of town and had not heard
  • Wake up alone and afraid and hear only the endless ticking of the clock on a far too long night.
  • Open a drawer and discover a birthday card from years past with a sentimental message inside.
  • Find the recipe for your mother’s chocolate brownie pie on the back of an old bank envelope…in your mother’s handwriting.
  • Wake up on your own birthday and realize this is the first time you have had a birthday without your mom.
  • Prepare to sell the house you grew up in, that your parents shared for your entire life, packed with memories and ‘things’ – all left in your care to decide, distribute or discard.


There are an infinite number of “firsts” that come up unexpectedly.   That can happen for years after the death of a loved one.  You may want to cry. So cry. You may want to scream. So scream.  You may want to sit down and feel the feelings. So sit and feel the feelings.   Whatever comes up, let it, for it is in allowing yourself to feel the feelings and say what needs saying that you will heal.    In time, these firsts will lessen though never completely cease.  What will diminish is the magnitude of your response….  You will eventually shift from “Oh NO!” or “Ah, so…”   What causes tears one year often brings smiles and stories on down the road.

You are in a new chapter of life…and with every turn of the page you find some familiar and some not familiar…Same furniture, empty chair.  Same bank, new business to handle.  These new experiences can feel overwhelming and blindsiding.   They can also be encouraging and empowering.  Find comfort and encouragement as you walk through your own world of ‘firsts’.


Dr Sandi Howlett is the Bereavement Specialist for Hansen Mortuaries.   She can be reached at [email protected]