Anniversary Reactions

I was barely conscious as I heard a bystander shout, “Somebody call an ambulance!” As my body twitched on the floor of a deli in the Bronx, I muttered to myself, “Of course, something like this would happen now, this was the day that I learned that my mother was going to die three years ago.” In my case there was a physical reason for my collapse, however, the psychologist in me knows that physical and psychological health are inexplicably interwoven. They influence and are influenced by each other, often without our even realizing it. Likewise, after the death of a loved one, most people suffer anniversary reactions, which often operate outside of consciousness.

What is an anniversary reaction?

An anniversary reaction is a set of unsettling memories or feelings (anxiety, anger, sadness, fear) that you can trace to an unpleasant event (the death of a loved one, an accident, a robbery, a natural disaster). At times it can be difficult to make the link between the unpleasant event and the feelings you are experiencing for a number of different reasons. Firstly, the fact that this is an “anniversary reaction” can be buried deep in the unconscious and disguised in various ways (as a somatic complaint, as vague unpleasant feelings that are hard to pinpoint). Thus, it might be hard to figure out why we are feeling bad; it can be difficult to link it to an event that might have happened many years ago. Second, sometimes the anniversary reaction happens on the actual date that the traumatic event occurred, while at other times it might be triggered by something else, like the season of the year. When it is linked to a season rather than a day or date, it can take a lot more self-reflection to think about, “Why do I feel bad every summer?” For example, all of my loved ones died between April and July. Summer happens to be one of my least favorite seasons. I wonder if it is influenced at all by having experienced so many deaths in the late spring and early summer. It is almost as if as spring ends I feel the need to brace myself for whatever catastrophe summer might bring.

Experiencing an anniversary reaction is a normal part of the grieving process. All that it means is that the traumatic event has not been fully processed yet; something from your past is asking for attention. Once it is “worked through” the anniversary reactions should become less and less intense until they no longer carry the same power.

What can we do if we suspect that we are experiencing an anniversary reaction?

1) As each month begins think about the significant dates so that you are prepared, and so that if you start to feel out of sorts you know where it is coming from. Having an idea of the past event that is causing your current bad feelings can help you to process them. Remember that you can experience an anniversary reaction on the days leading up to the significant date or anytime during the season of the year that a trauma occurred.

2) When you are experiencing an anniversary reaction be sure to find an outlet to express your memories, thoughts, and feelings. You can do this through speaking (to trusted friends or a therapist), writing, painting, drawing, making music, or praying. The goal is to try to put words to, to try to express in some way, your trauma, and what it meant for you and your life.

3) Make a special effort to take good care of yourself while trying to work through a trauma. Eat a lot of fruits and veggies, drink plenty of water, and make sure to get enough sleep each night. If you feel like you are drowning in your trauma, seek out the help of a grief or trauma specialist. It often helps to have a steady companion as we journey through the darkness of our trauma to the light on the other side.

Have you ever experienced an anniversary reaction?  If so, what was it like? How did you get through it?

I appreciate that so many people are taking the time to read my posts.  I will continue writing about my interests but I am also interested in addressing your questions and concerns.  In an ideal world, I would like this to be a discussion about death and dying. So, if you have any comments or questions, please feel free to ask, either in the form of a comment below or, if you feel more comfortable, via email:! Thanks!

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4 Responses to Anniversary Reactions

  1. Amy Stillwell says:

    Today is my brother’s 48th birthday. He is terminally ill with Stage IV cancer. I just know that this will be his last birthday and he is just so sick that it’s very hard to celebrate. I have been dreading calling him all day because I just know that I will end up in tears while I talk to him. Do you think it’s ok to talk to him about my fears?

    • admin says:

      Hi Amy:

      Thanks for writing. I am so sorry to hear that you are going through this. I think that one of the hardest things we ever have to go through is saying good-bye to a loved one. As hard as it is, it is important to share your thoughts and feelings with your brother while you still have time. If you fail to you could regret this decision in the future. It is important to leave nothing unsaid. This is the short answer. I will speak more about saying goodbye to loved ones who leave too soon in a blog in the near future. Please feel free to ask any other questions that you might have during this painful time.

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