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Why You Should Take A Death Anniversary Trip

Instead of hibernating on the anniversary of my mom’s death, I took a trip to Halifax, both for her and for me.

Why You Should Take A Death Anniversary Trip
Anna Haines

Every June for the past nine years, I dread the 27th—the day my mom died. In a death-phobic culture that lacks mourning rituals for honoring those we’ve lost, I never know what to do with myself. Since a death anniversary is something only the bereaved experience, it can be incredibly lonely. My usual response is to hibernate and just get through it. But last year, in the weeks leading up to the big day, I was scrolling through photos of friends’ engagement parties, destination weddings, and birthday trips on Instagram and thought, ‘Why don’t we give death anniversaries the same consideration?’ So, instead of letting the milestone pass, I decided to lean into my grief by going on a death anniversary trip, both as a way to honor my mom and to give myself some extra R&R during the difficult week.

I chose a place mom and I had planned to visit but never did—Halifax, Nova Scotia. Mom was a Pisces who was drawn to the ocean, so the seaside Canadian city seemed like the perfect destination. Given the nature of the trip, it felt fitting that a thunderstorm hit Halifax just in time for my arrival. As we circled above the coastline, waiting for the wind to calm, the flight attendant reassured us, “Not to worry, we brought a little extra fuel.” I imagined us precariously aloft over the choppy Atlantic Ocean, our small plane a blip in the stormy sky. I looked out my window, but at 11 p.m., I couldn’t see a thing. There is something so unsettling about facing complete darkness. Like navigating grief, you have to blindly trust you’ll find your way through.

As we descended to Earth, I felt a familiar tightness in my chest that often arises in the brief moments before landing when doubt washes over my body, and I wonder if we’ll get through this one alive. And yet, we always do. “Feel how fast we’re going?” Mom would always exclaim when our plane hit the runway, her eyes brightening with adrenaline. When you’re in the sky, you feel like you’re barely moving, but as soon as you hit the ground, velocity catches up to you.

Rain is like grief; you can either fight it or accept it.

If arriving in a thunderstorm was fitting for a death anniversary trip, so too was the week of nonstop rain that followed. The day I took my mom off life support, the rain fell in sheets, and ever since, a downpour feels like a release. “I haven’t seen this much rain pour in a week in my 40 years living here,” a local named Jody Macdonald told me. “It’s honestly depressing.” Rain is like grief; you can either fight it or accept it. I chose the latter, embracing water in all its forms. As a literary symbol of cleansing and rebirth, it felt like the right element to be immersed in while grieving.

With mom’s love for the ocean in mind, I chose to stay at Muir, a five-star hotel designed to evoke the feeling of being on a boat (albeit a luxury ocean liner). With the hotel’s muted color scheme mirroring the foggy harbor, heavy use of granite sourced from a quarry just outside the city, curved walls evoking the shape of a ship, and mirrors rounded like portholes, it was easy to forget I was still on land. In a province where quaint accommodations typically feature East Coast motifs of lobsters and lighthouses, Halifax’s first luxury hotel felt like the perfect place to get some much-needed rest. I was grateful to have a soundproof room with blackout curtains and unbelievably plush beds that beckoned me to sleep in through the dark, overcast mornings.

With grief and the weather giving me decision fatigue, I wasn’t sure where to start on my first day. So I went with one of the city’s oldest tourist attractions: Citadel Hill. Dating back to 1749, it served as the hilltop fort for the Canadian military. I was attracted to the national site after hearing I could take a ghost tour of the supposedly haunted grounds. But when I arrived to find out they had none available during my stay, I realized I was taking the wrong approach to my trip. A ghost tour wasn’t going to make me feel closer to my mom or help me get through a difficult week.

What would help me through my grief most was taking care of my body, and that began with nourishment. While I’m not typically a donut person, I was drawn into a bright and colorful donut shop called Fortune when I spotted some ouija boards for sale. From my mom, I inherited a sweet tooth, so I took encountering the board game designed to communicate with the dead as a sign to treat myself. When I couldn’t decide between cinnamon sugar and chocolate coconut, they gave me one for free. Coming from my uptight hometown of Toronto, I was struck by the generosity. But shortly after, I went for what is known to be the best slice in town at Yeah Yeahs Pizza, and they gave me a giant bag of free croissants courtesy of the cafe downstairs, and I realized this was the warm East Coast hospitality Canadians talk about.

After my first two casual comfort food encounters, I made the mistake of assuming all Halifax eateries were laid back. As I walked into the candlelit French bistro, Café Lunette,I was suddenly aware of my drowned-rat appearance from spending so much time in the rain. My self-consciousness soon wore off, though, as the staff treated me no differently for being underdressed or for getting three dishes—including an impressive ratatouille topped with a cheese-filled tomato—all to myself. It was one of the few dishes I ate in Halifax without seafood, something my mom and I loved. At the popular seafood-centric Italian restaurant Bicycle Thief, I savored succulent shrimp with a view of the harbor. Back at my hotel’s signature restaurant Drift, I tasted elevated takes on old East Coast family recipes like lobster fish cakes topped with “chow chow,” a traditional Canadian relish made of green tomatoes I was embarrassed I’d never heard of. Upstairs, I discovered my hotel had its own speakeasy, BKS, available exclusively to guests. I was intrigued by the menu of cocktails inspired by the city’s prohibition-era rum-running past but decided to pass on drinking, afraid alcohol might exacerbate my grief.

Queen's Marque Halifax

Anna Haines

Instead, I leaned into self-care by taking a restorative yoga class at R Studios. As we lay in corpse pose, the instructor put on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” one of my mom’s favorite songs. For the first time this trip, I felt the tears come. Whenever this has happened before in a yoga class, I’ve usually pushed them away. But here, supported by bolsters, blocks, and blankets, I just let them come. I found further catharsis at Nature Folk, a Nordic-inspired spa popular among locals for its thermal circuit consisting of two Finnish saunas, an infrared sauna, a warm pool, and a cold plunge. As someone who fears the cold, I typically skip the icy option. But something about surrendering to the persistent rain and my grief in the days prior made me feel open to trying it. While the prickly sensation in my limbs was uncomfortable, I was glad I went through with it because of how much more restorative it made the massage that followed.

When I wasn’t seeking healing water therapies or tasting succulent seafood, I admired the ocean from the harbor as I strolled its 2.5-mile boardwalk. Following a major glow-up a couple of years ago, the waterfront area is now known as the “Queen’s Marque,” the district’s director of marketing, Stephanie Carver, told me. While visitors and locals alike are attracted to the revitalized harbor for its contemporary art installations, boutique shops, and diverse array of restaurants, I was most interested in one of the harbor’s older attractions, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. As I viewed the bucolic paintings of Maud Lewis that felt like snuggling with a cozy blanket, I was surprised to learn that the Canadian artist was disabled, just like my mom. Afterward, I browsed the museum gift shop, where I noticed a teaspoon with the words I had engraved on my mom’s memorial plaque: “You are my sunshine.”

After purchasing the teaspoon, I sluggishly made my way back to my hotel, letting my mind meander to memories of my mom stirring sugar into her tea. I paused outside Muir at what is arguably the Queen’s Marquee’s most popular piece of public art—the “Rise Again” monument. As I admired the installation—an illuminated sloped staircase with a shimmering tower at the summit—I recalled a local telling me “Rise Again” is a common refrain used to refer to Nova Scotians’ ability to overcome adversity, and thus the monument serves to honor the past while looking optimistically to the future. As I stood in the relentless rain, I wondered if I could do the same.

On my last day, I moved to Lord Nelson Hotel and Suites for a (more affordable) change of scenery. While further from the water, the near-century-old landmark hotel was just steps from the Halifax Public Gardens, which felt right given my mom’s green thumb. The peaceful park’s small size made it easy to take a relaxed stroll before embarking on a day trip to Lunenberg, a charming coastal town a one-hour drive from Halifax. On a walking tour, I learned Lunenberg’s Old Town is one of two urban communities in North America designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but I was more interested in the ghost stories of fishermen who were lost at sea and returned to haunt the village. The unexpectedly grief-tinged tour ended at the Fishermen’s Memorial, a circle of black statues listing the names of all the fishermen who have died at sea. While the tour ended on a somber note, I left feeling validated. It was refreshing to see loss and grief recognized as an integral part of a town’s history rather than treated as something shameful or taboo.

Drift Restaurant Muir Hotel Halifax

Anna Haines

Due to yet another thunderstorm, my bus ride back to Halifax was canceled, so I caught a ride with a tourism representative who was born and raised in Nova Scotia. While the day trip had me excited to experience the province’s lush countryside, I was soon disappointed at the unsettling sight of forests recently decimated by wildfires. As we drove through the bleak landscape, I was inspired by tales of how Nova Scotians rallied together to help support the overworked firefighters by bringing them supplies. It was just the latest example of locals’ resiliency. There was also the Halifax explosion in 1917, in which a French cargo ship filled with explosives collided with a Norwegian vessel in the harbor, resulting in the largest man-made explosion before Hiroshima. Then, following 9/11, residents received more than 7,000 diverted passengers from around the world with open arms. The more I learned of its past, the more I began to see Halifax as a city well-versed in grief and loss.

Another surprise history lesson on our drive back to Halifax concerned the city’s involvement in the aftermath of the Titanic sinking. While New York City received the ship’s survivors, Halifax was the base of the recovery effort to retrieve the bodies of the 328 deceased passengers and crew members. While I don’t usually visit cemeteries—my mom isn’t buried in one—when asked if I wanted to make a pitstop at the graveyard where the Titanic victims were buried, I immediately said yes. I wandered the Titanic gravesite alone, my heart sinking at the absence of names on tombstones; since many of the victims were third class, the ship’s manifest only identified them by their passenger number.

With the Titanic top of mind, I decided to have my last dinner at a restaurant rumored to be haunted by victims of the shipwreck—Five Fishermen. Walking into the convivial two-story restaurant, you would never guess it was once the morgue that processed the bodies retrieved from the sea. As I savored my fish cakes and scallops, I overheard a server tell another table that the former owner of the funeral home died in the building, and that people have reported seeing his ghost. Intrigued, I asked my server if she’d seen any ghosts. She said she hadn’t, but a manager reported seeing cupboard doors come flying off, and the lights flicker in the private dining room where the bodies were once embalmed. I thought of my theory that my mom haunts me through flickering lights. To others, these ghost tales might sound creepy, but to me, I see them as comforting—signs that death is not final, that the spirits of lives lost too soon prevail.

As I waited in the airport for my departing flight, I kept thinking about something my local driver had told me the day prior: “We don’t forget; we recognize.” The Halifax explosion, Titanic, 9/11, and now the wildfires—Halifax is a city that doesn’t run away from loss and grief but rather faces them head-on. Over a century since the explosion, there is still a memorial service each year, and the event, in addition to the Titanic, is recognized in exhibits at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. While the city continues to mourn the difficult events of the past, it also looks forward, evidenced by its tremendous growth and modernization in recent years. I had chosen Halifax for my mom’s love of the ocean and my desire to experience the slower Maritime pace; I never expected the city to provide a crash course in how to manage my grief.

Every year, when the anniversary of my mom’s death rolls around, I’m afraid if I lean into my loss I won’t be able to escape it. My time in Halifax revealed that the sun often returns just when it feels like the heavy cloud of grief will never dissipate. Within minutes of taking off, we ascended through the thick blanket of fog to a bright blue sky above the clouds. Whenever I flew with my mom as a little girl, I would look out the window and ask her where all the angels were. I took the absence of visible angels above the clouds as proof that there was no heaven. “They’re here; you just can’t see them,” she’d assure me.

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