Some anniversaries recall joyous moments. They’re greeted every year with cards, celebrations and pleasant thoughts. But other anniversaries commemorate tragedies.
They represent horrific events that have had devastating consequences for those who’ve experienced them. Perhaps they mark the suicide of a husband, the birth of a stillborn child or a fatal accident involving a loved one.
These anniversaries are marked by great sadness. Memories are brought to the forefront and re-experienced as if they were happening anew. They may also be accompanied by fatigue, depression or bouts of weeping.
Sometimes the emotions arise out of nowhere, broadsiding sufferers when they least expect them.
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“I thought I was doing better,” a mother complains on the anniversary of her teenage daughter’s overdose. “But this day always hits me like a ton of bricks. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Environmental cues can play a pivotal role in the remembering experience. Weather patterns, ambient lighting, holidays, the sounds of children on a school playground and trees blooming in the neighborhood may trigger the arrival of memories. Even if those stimuli didn’t seem noticeable at the time, they’re now harbingers of another anniversary.
They can even predict a sad season — a specific period of time associated with the loss. The anniversary of the San Simeon Earthquake, which occurred Dec. 22, 2003, brings back acute memories of my own mother’s illness and subsequent death six weeks later from cancer.
Anniversaries can be lonely events. No two people suffer in the exact same way. Others may not remember the event with the same pain or clarity. Still others might harbor shame or judgment about what happened. As a result, grievers find themselves mourning in silence, unable to share their feelings or ask for support.
Of course, memories and reactions change over time. Grievers may be inconsolable on the first anniversary, but sad and agitated on the second. They may totally forget one anniversary, then be despondent the next.
There’s no right or wrong way to mark these painful anniversaries. We each grieve in our own personal way. The key is to experience them however we need to, and to honor our own strength and survival in the process.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit lindalewisgriffith.com.
Tips for dealing with painful days
- Embrace the day. Acknowledge its special meaning in your life. Don’t push it into the background.
- Plan ahead. Don’t let the day catch you by surprise. Be proactive to minimize its negative impact.
- Be kind to yourself. This day is emotionally draining. Treat yourself to a massage.
- Develop a meaningful ritual that can be repeated every year. Visit the gravesite. Light a candle at your bedside. Make a donation to a relevant charity.
- Distract yourself by going to a movie or taking a short trip.
- Spend time with friends. Plan a paella party at your home, or go on a hike to a place with special meaning.
- Help someone else going through a similar experience.
- Be flexible. Your experience may be different every year. Allow it to write its own agenda.