WHAT IS AN ANNIVERSARY REACTION?
Let’s say your loved one died many months ago. You did all the “right” things. You cried until it seemed like you had no tears left. You talked until you were blue in the face about your beloved to anyone who would listen. You reminisced, remembering all those touching, irritating, funny, cute quirks your beloved had that made that person unique in the entire world to you. You were irritated that the rest of the world carried on when you were inundated with waves of grief that washed over you again and again, when you least expected it. But you rode out the swells of grief.
Finally, you could see your pain beginning to subside. You could talk about your loved one without getting a lump in your throat every time. You noticed you could go for hours or days without being preoccupied by your lost love. Okay, maybe not days.
But still, you had some free attention to get back to the business of living. You were proud of yourself for the way you handled this personal tragedy. And well you should be!
When Grief Hits All Over Again
Then, wham! The grief seemed to start all over again. Why? What happened? Does this mean you haven’t made the progress you thought you had?
No. You are experiencing an anniversary reaction. An anniversary reaction is an abbreviated version of your grief that comes as if to remind you that resolving a loss takes longer than any of us would like. The feelings associated with these reactions may have a surprising depth or may be twinges of grief that remind you of your loved one’s absence. Anniversary reactions offer you an opportunity to resolve more of the loss. So they should be welcomed, rather than avoided.
Anniversary Reactions and Dates
Anniversary reactions predictably occur on the anniversary of a particular date. For example, the father of a psychotherapy client of mine died in March. Her birthday was in October. Although we diligently had worked with her grief, she was stunned when her birthday ushered in a whole new wave of dealing with her dad’s absence. She was grateful she had saved last year’s birthday phone call from him. Playing it was almost like hearing from him again. She expressed relief to know these reactions were normal.
New rounds of grief may be triggered by normal developmental events. For instance, the six-year-old daughter of friends of mine was killed in a tragic, freak accident. When their son went away from home for college fourteen years later, both parents were sorely grieved. His absence left a big hole in their daily life, of course. But they were not expecting it to be so hard until I worked with them to connect the dots. The son’s maturing and leaving home stirred up grief for their daughter’s permanent absence and for her missed opportunity to do the same.
Four rules of thumb about anniversary reactions:
Resolve your Grief
One cautionary note is in order. If you continue actively grieving year after year on occasions you associate with your absent loved one, this may indicate a problem. That loss may be chronic and unresolved.
This means you spend energy on managing a loss without resolving it. I strongly urge you to resolve any and all losses while they are fresh. Don’t be afraid to get professional help if you feel stuck. Doing so doesn’t mean you are weak. It means you’re sensible enough to get help when you need it. Then you can spend your energy living, rather than denying your grief.