The time of year, season, or the date itself of a significant loss, often referred to as the “anniversary,” can have an impact on those left behind. An anniversary can bring with it a unique blend of sadness, nostalgia, fond memories, dread, and in some cases, a mental or emotional re-experiencing of the event itself.
Rebecca is a 27 year-old saleswoman who lost her father to cancer 3 days before Christmas several years ago. Each year as the holiday season approaches, she finds herself feeling very down. Where most of her friends are planning Christmas celebrations and reveling in the spirit of the season, she becomes withdrawn and lonely, with increased recollections of her father’s hospital trips which started peaking around the end of October that year. Each season she tries hard to join in the festivity but it’s just too draining, and she finds excuses to stay home by herself. This lasts until around February, when her energy begins to resurface and she’s more eager to socialize with her friends.
James is a 61 year-old distribution manager whose son was killed in a car accident one year ago. As the anniversary of the tragedy draws near, James finds himself fearful of leaving his house. He struggles with intense fears that something “terrible” will happen to him if he does. James notices his thoughts, as well as his heartbeat, racing as he must force himself out of the house and into the car to go to work each day. He worries he may be losing his mind and keeps everything to himself, which seems to heighten his fear and dread.
Rebecca and James are having common responses to very significant losses in their lives. As creatures of habit, we humans tend to use routine and association as a way to organize our lives. Typically, whatever else was happening at the time of a meaningful event can become associated with the event in our memories. Some common examples of this would be the immediate nostalgia in hearing a song from our childhood on the radio, or in recent years, the fear, sadness or anger some re-experience on each 11th day of September.
If you can relate to Rebecca or James’ situations, here are some tips on coping as the anniversary of your loss approaches:
- Expect the symptoms, rather than dreading them. By planning ahead you are taking control and “gearing up” for what you know will be a difficult time. Remind yourself, “as this day draws nearer I can expect to feel [sad/anxious/lonely/impatient/etc.] and once the date has come and gone, I can expect to feel better.”
- Just as you’re gearing up yourself, prepare those close to you, as well. This can serve two purposes: it helps them to understand why you may be a little less talkative or a little more irritable without needing to repetitively explain, and it opens the door for their support when asking for it directly might be too stressful.
- Create a Self-Care Toolbox. Make a list of things that relax you and keep it in a convenient place during this time. Mindfully use one or two every day as a way to keep grounded. Some ideas – taking a walk, a hot bath/shower, playing with the dog, reading a fiction book, watching a funny movie, doing a crossword puzzle, knitting, play a board game, etc.
- Plan an activity to commemorate the lost loved one. No matter your spiritual or religious background, there are many creative ways to commemorate your loved one:
- Write a “letter,” just as if you were going to send it to the person, updating them on your life, asking or telling them what’s been on your mind, etc
- Hold a group “memorial,” which can take the form of a celebration dinner among friends & family, sharing of fond or fun memories of the person, a prayer service, etc
- Visit a meaningful place, i.e., the person’s grave, their favorite location (restaurant, vacation spot, etc.) as a way to honor their memory.
- Create an online memorial. There are websites devoted to this purpose, with the option of uploading pictures, videos, testimonials, and letters to pay tribute to your loved one. This site, http://www.remembered-forever.org/, is an example. You can also find support and comforting information, as with most online memorial sites.