top of page
  • Writer's pictureSam Alvis

The Not-So-Happy Anniversary: How to Navigate Significant Grief and Trauma Anniversaries

Like many people, I love the transition from summer to fall (no, I do not like pumpkin spice lattes, wide-brimmed hats, or fall pictures, however). The cooler temperatures, crisp fall leaves, and changing scenery are soothing to my senses. However, the short-lived permanence of the fall season quickly reminds me of the impending winter months, which for me mark a season of pain, grief, and loss. Between the months of November and February lie the majority of my “grief anniversaries.”


“What’s a grief anniversary?,” you might ask.


A grief anniversary is a significant anniversary (i.e. date/holiday/time of year) of a loss that can potentially trigger intense feelings of grief, psychological distress, isolation, etc. Many people readily identify a grief anniversary as (a) the specific date that a loved one died or (b) a deceased loved one’s birthday.


However, there are a myriad of additional circumstances or events that elicit strong feelings of grief or pain. Although by no means an exhaustive list, the following includes other significant events/dates that might trigger a grief and/or trauma response:

  • Certain cultural traditions/holidays (i.e. Veteran’s Day, Christmas, Yom Kippur, Columbus Day etc.)

  • Dates of initial medical diagnoses or surgeries

  • Developmental milestones (i.e. graduation, starting a new job/career, wedding planning process/marriage, pregnancy, child-rearing, retirement, etc.)

  • Anniversaries of a previous marriage or relationship and/or date when significant relationship ended

  • Job loss/being fired

  • Specific mental health crises (personal or a loved one’s) such as suicide attempt, overdose, hospitalization, treatment beginning or ending, etc.

  • Specific traumatic experiences such as sexual and/or physical assault, traumatic car accident, mass shootings, etc.

  • Communal events that you might not have experienced directly, but are still impacted by (i.e. Columbine, 9/11, George Floyd’s death/police brutality).


...and the countless specific experiences unique to you that elicit grief and pain.


Rather than tell you exactly what your experience is in navigating your unique grief and trauma anniversaries, I hope to offer you a look at some of the common responses of navigating a grief anniversary and ways to support yourself as you plan for an upcoming significant date.


Common Responses


Note that I intentionally chose the word “common,” rather than “normal” to describe the ways that people navigate grief anniversaries. Meaning: there is no “normal” when it comes to grief. Period. (See my other writing on my loathing of the word normal to get a better sense of my posture behind this). There is no “one way” you are “supposed” to respond to an initial grief or trauma, nor in navigating subsequent anniversaries.


I’ll get off my soap-box now and share some common responses and experiences people report related to grief and trauma anniversaries:


  • Dreadful Anticipation

    • Some people can recite off the specific year, date, and hour of their anniversary at the drop of a hat. They anxiously await the date, anticipating distressing feelings and eagerly invite “getting through” another anniversary.

  • Delayed Impact

    • Some people can “hold themselves together” on the day of, but then find themselves ripping at the seams on a random Tuesday before or after. Often, so much energy can be spent preparing for “the day of,” that your system is exhausted by trying to “get through” and it is easier for your emotions to come out sideways once the day has passed.

  • Indifferent Forgetfulness

    • For some, there is a genuine sense of forgetting or feeling unimpacted by an anniversary date. Rather than being a sense of callousness, these individuals might not recognize one date as holding more meaning than any other day they live in the aftermath of grief or trauma. For others, the indifference is an intentional attempt to protect their systems from being impacted by the reality of their pain and trauma.

  • Savoring Bittersweetness

    • Others approach a grief/trauma anniversary with a nostalgic posture that invites them to remember the “good times” and reminiscence of the moments pre-loss. Some are reminded of their spiritual hope in eternity or of the impermanence of the physical/material and are moved to awe, humility, and sacredness.

  • Some Combination or Alternative Response

    • Most likely, you may experience a combination of the above responses. Being a complex human, your responses may shift over time, between different grief anniversaries, or may include the myriad of responses in one day. It is common and ok to respond differently at different seasons in your life.


Ways to Anticipate the Anniversary


Regardless of your response to significant grief and trauma anniversaries, the following are some helpful tips to support you in your experience:


  • Tell someone: reach out to someone significant in your life (friend, partner, spiritual mentor, etc.) about the upcoming date and its meaning to you. If it’s helpful, you can ask that person to check in on you in the days leading up to or following the date or on the day of the anniversary. There is power in having your pain be held in the mind, heart, and body of someone else.

  • Make a plan: maybe you want to take off work that day; maybe you know you need structure and need to focus on a task. Perhaps it would be helpful to schedule a meeting with a trusted safe other or schedule a counseling session. Again: there is no RIGHT way to spend this day, only ways that might be more helpful or more harmful to your experiencing. (I.e. maaaybe don’t schedule a job interview if you have the choice to pick an alternate date). Setting yourself up for the best success in this instance means creating spaces and places for you to respond as you need to on this day.

  • Utilize Support: Whether that's ongoing support with a mental health counselor or a specific plan of skills and strategies to help keep you safe during a potential distressing time, prepare for the possibility that you may need to engage in your care plan.

  • Commemorate in a way that works for you: Maybe this means visiting a loved one’s grave, going through old pictures, or reading through letters. Perhaps it means cooking someone’s favorite meal or doing an activity cherished by your deceased loved one. It could also look like telling stories of your loved one or of the trauma you experienced to trusted people in your life. Again, these are just some prompting ideas. Experiment with what brings you the most healing and release.

  • Cry. Laugh. Scream. Whatever works: Remembering that there’s “no normal(s)” in grief, there is no one particular emotional state you are supposed to experience on this day (or any day for that matter). Perhaps crying serves as an embodied way to experience your pain. Maybe you want to laugh at funny and heartfelt memories of your loved one. Perhaps your pain moves you to righteous anger that seeks to passionately advocate and prevent others from enduring the same things you have experienced. Whatever the case: grant permission and space for whatever emotions may arise.


May you feel a sense of permission to experience your grief and trauma anniversary in a way that brings meaning to you.


Be well,

Sam


If you feel as if processing some of these things in a counseling space would be your best next step, click here to schedule an initial free consultation with me to explore how we can discover a space of safety, connection, and ultimately, change.


Comments


bottom of page