A sadiversary grief pilgrimage. What is it? A sadiversary is the anniversary of a loved one’s death, a calendar date that marks another year after the loss. In the context of grief and sadiversary dates, I like the definition of a pilgrimage as a journey undertaken as a quest for a purpose, as to pay homage. Some definitions relate a pilgrimage to a sacred place, shrine, or an act of religious devotion, but I don’t believe in enshrining a place or idolizing a deathbed. In fact, the location of your love one’s death may still be painful years later.
Same Date, Different Pilgrimages
This summer, two different sadiversary grief pilgrimages focused on the same date: June 13th. In one case, an entire family took a cross-country road trip, traveling over a thousand miles to visit a motorcycle crash site on the first sadiversary. They planned in advance, made arrangements for lodging, and decided how to retrace the last days of their patriarch’s life. I spoke with the widow and her daughter as they prepared for their pilgrimage. Although tearful and grieving, they were determined to make this trip meaningful for all involved.
In contrast, the other pilgrimage occurred half of a century after the death, on the fiftieth sadiversary. Months before she traveled 2000+ miles for the journey, a woman researched many details of her father’s fatal crash. She looked up obituaries, plat map books, and location maps. Her research also involved pre-computer methods: a library visit to photograph bound newspapers (in 1973, this library did not use micro-fiche storage), a letter campaign to many families in the region, and telephone conversations with people who responded to the letters. Attempts to track down eye-witnesses proved challenging because people had died, moved, or sold their land. However, several younger family members had been told the story and passed on new information to the grieving daughter. The family members of the original eye witnesses invited her out to the crash site and welcomed her and her aunt with genuine hospitality and kindness.
These two sadiversary grief pilgrimages, although centered on the same day, illustrate the truth of how unique the grief experience is for each individual. A grief pilgrimage can be a time to commemorate your loved one, honor their life, and process your grief. Or more importantly, an opportunity to recognize the grief that you have already processed. Whether you take a grief pilgrimage on the sadiversary or at another time, here are some ideas to consider when you visit the site of your loved one’s death or another site associated with memories of the deceased.
As you plan, consider the site and any accommodations you need to make. For example, obtain permissions, determine how to access a specific area, and recognize safety factors, etc. If the exact location is unaccessible, consider a place nearby where you could spend time reflecting. For example, you cannot sit in a busy intersection, but perhaps you could park on a side street. Decide on your goals and activities as you plan ahead.
Bring a supportive friend or family member—or complete this on your own. Recognize and respect that everyone grieves differently. One person’s grief pilgrimage will have different goals and expectations than another person’s. There may be family members who don’t want to join you because they are not ready or they have already processed their grief in different ways. If you invite people, discuss your plans and expectations in advance.
Make a Back-up Plan
Visiting or revisiting the site may elicit the pain and grief you previously experienced or bring up new emotions. This may trigger difficult responses, even if you have never seen the site before. Strategize how to cope with any overwhelming emotions that may arise. If you deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, make a plan—perhaps with the help of a counselor. Have an exit prepared, but don’t rush away before you accomplish what you set out to do. Find a place to regroup near the site you plan to visit.
Set Realistic Expectations
This pilgrimage may be a quest for peace and closure, but recognize that you may not find the answers or closure you seek. In fact, this journey may bring up more questions than answers. As much as you knew your loved one, you may not know everything about what they felt and how they dealt with the events leading up to their death. Answer the questions you can, and be flexible with your idea of closure. Be realistic about what you can accomplish and be prepared that this experience might not turn out exactly as expected.
At the Site
Give yourself time to process everything. Recognize that heavy grief is exhausting. You may need extra time, comfort, or space when you physically and emotionally revisit an earlier place of grief and pain. Be careful not to make the location of your loved one’s death a sacred place or an idol that controls you. Say a prayer, have a moment, read a Bible verse, write in your journal—whatever comforts you.
Consider a souvenir: take a picture, find a rock, pick a flower/leaf to press, or buy a souvenir from the town/region. Be careful what you leave, especially if the site is owned by someone else. (No one wants plastic flowers that will be plowed under at the next snowfall.) Contact the owners or the park staff for suggestions of a memorial. Perhaps they have an idea for a bench, a marker, or a tree to commemorate your loved one. They may have an idea you never considered. Be flexible and respect the property and its owners.
A sadiversary grief pilgrimage may provide a comforting quest to grieve, honor, and remember your loved one. To maximize your experience, plan your goals in advance, set realistic expectations for yourself, and consider what you will do at the actual site. Expect that not everything will be explained or come to closure. I encourage you to look to Jesus for the peace that passes understanding (Philippians 4:7), and recognize that we won’t understand everything this side of heaven.