Anniversary Reactions and Grief: How It Works

Updated

Anniversaries mark special occasions. Some are joyous events, while others remind us of the anniversary of traumatic events in our lives or the death of a loved one. Anniversary reactions to significant losses happen each year for many people. These are reminders of loss at or near the date of the event, whether planned for or not. 

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The anniversary of loss isn’t the type of event that needs entering into the calendar. The chances are that you’ll never forget the day you suffered through a life-altering loss. The anniversary date of your loss, beginning with the first year, will forever stay with you. Each year serves as a reminder of your loss and that you have survived another year despite your setback.

What’s an Anniversary Reaction?

Before you realize it, an entire year has passed by marking the first anniversary of your loved one’s death or another significant loss. Anniversary reactions to grief are the spontaneous outpouring of emotions linked to the pain and sorrow of your loss. 

While everyone experiences grief in their own way, you can expect specific grief reactions on the anniversary of your loss. As the weeks go by after suffering a significant loss, you’ll find yourself starting to feel better and going back to your everyday routines. 

Some individuals may experience feelings of profound sadness, and they’ll want to keep to themselves to sort out their emotions. Others might suffer a complete emotional breakdown and seek the support of friends and other loved ones. When anniversary grief hits, you’ll want to reach out to your grief resources to help you through this challenging time. 

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What Causes an Anniversary Reaction?

When bereaved individuals realize the impact of their loved one's death one year after the event, they're generally caught off guard by how life managed to go on without them. Several factors contribute to these feelings of overwhelming grief and sorrow at your loved one's death anniversary.

One of the more readily identifiable contributors to anniversary grief reactions is the realization that your loved one's no longer in your life and that you've managed to survive your pain and suffering. 

For some people, they may suffer anniversary reactions because they've kept themselves so busy during the first few months that the one-year mark comes by way too quickly. They may feel overwhelmed with feelings of loss all over because they never allowed themselves to fully grieve their loved one's death in the beginning. 

What Does an Anniversary Reaction Look or Feel Like?

When the anniversary of a major setback or death of a loved one triggers a grief reaction, bereaved individuals may find themselves re-experiencing the pain and sorrow associated with their loss.

Much of the time, unresolved grief is attributed to these types of grief reactions. Often they occur each year at or around the time of loss and can last for a few days or weeks afterward. The following are some ways to recognize the effects of this type of grief

Partial or total withdrawal from life

A person suffering through an anniversary reaction may find that their grief is too overwhelming to cope with. They may respond by withdrawing from friends and loved ones until they get a better handle on their emotions. 

Some people may find it challenging to maintain their responsibilities both at home and at work. They may react with feelings of hopelessness and despair, making it difficult to function. While friends, loved ones, and coworkers may miss the cues that an anniversary is approaching, some won't miss the emotional changes taking place. 

Isolating behavior

Whether you or someone you know has a death or traumatic event anniversary coming up, be aware that it’s perfectly normal to feel like taking a step back from the people you know and love.

Isolation is different from withdrawal in that social withdrawal means avoiding the people and things you like, while isolation is avoiding those closest to you and feeling as if you want to be by yourself all the time. Both isolation and withdrawal are natural responses to the grieving process. Remember that these feelings won’t last forever. 

Added stress and anxiety

Many of the initial grief reactions experienced soon after a loss tend to come up again as the anniversary date approaches. Much of the stress and anxiety comes from the fear of dealing with your grief and not knowing how the date will affect you emotionally when it gets here.

One of the ways to best handle anniversary reaction grief is by planning where you'll be on that date, what you'll be doing, and who you'll be with. Have an exit strategy in place that you've rehearsed and can count on when things go left. Having a plan and strategy will help you cope with the added stress and fear.

How Can You Cope With an Anniversary Reaction?

The passing of time alone doesn’t heal your grief. Significant events such as anniversaries and other special days may always lead you to revisit your pain and sorrow. One of the best ways to deal with your anniversary grief reactions is to confront them head-on. There’s no way around your grief but to face it and deal with it as it comes up.

You can expect your grief-related emotions to ebb and flow for many months after the date of your loss. The following are some things to take into consideration as you grapple with your suffering.

Believe that your grief has a purpose

Grief is transformative and healing. The more significant your loss is, expect that your grief will take on an even greater purpose. Individuals who’ve suffered the loss of a spouse or child find ways of incorporating their grief into something that not only benefits others, but that’s healing and fulfilling to them.

While not every sorrow will lead to the discovery of a higher purpose, every loss has meaning. Whatever value you place on your loss is unique to you. Your grief will reveal its purpose the longer you sit with it and begin to understand it.

Know that your sorrow will transform

Imagine what your life looks like six months, twelve months, and two years from now. Create an imaginary new life for yourself based on your recent experiences. As difficult as it may be to envision yourself living a completely different life, know that it’s not only possible but that you’re capable of manifesting it for yourself.

Focus on the possibilities of a life filled with joy where your sorrow has transformed into something different. Mark your progress in small increments starting from this anniversary date. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Knowing how to ask for the help you need is only half the battle. When a person’s grieving, they often find it challenging to let others know what they’re going through. Many don’t want to be seen as a burden on their loved ones, and others are too ashamed to admit that they need help.

There’s nothing shameful in needing added support during your time of grief. More and more people are dismissing the notion that grief is anything to be ashamed of. Consider seeking online grief counseling if you’re unable to bring yourself to talk to those closest to you. 

How Can You Help a Loved One Cope With an Anniversary Reaction?

It’s true when they say that grief is lonely and exhausting. Anyone who’s ever experienced a life-changing loss can attest to the challenges of coping with their grief. Your loved ones who’ve suffered through a significant loss may be experiencing an anniversary reaction to distress in isolation. 

When you’re aware of approaching anniversary dates, mark your calendar to remember to reach out to your loved ones to lend them some comfort and support. Here are some ideas of what you can do to help them.

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Sit with them and listen

Persons dealing with grief may need someone to talk to about their experiences since suffering their loss. Sometimes it helps bereaved individuals to process their emotions by sharing their experiences with someone they know and trust.

Talking about loss is an excellent way of getting through some of the more challenging days. You don’t need to say anything profound or Earth-shattering to help your loved one who’s grieving. It often helps to know that they have someone to talk to who’ll listen without judgment. 

Help plan a special day

Anniversaries usually signal a significant event or particular date on the calendar. However, when dealing with a death anniversary, this day can be anything but celebratory. Expect that your loved one will face specific challenges on this day that may make it difficult for them to get through it with their emotions intact. 

Often, it’s impossible to avoid the sadness these anniversaries bring. However, you can alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that your loved one faces when this date approaches. Plan on a day out together that will not only commemorate their loved one’s death but honor and celebrates both of their lives. 

Talk about their loved one

After the first few weeks following a death, the survivors often feel the isolation that comes after everyone’s returned to their usual routines. When the condolences stop arriving, and the visitors quit coming around to pay their respects, it can seem as if everyone’s forgotten about you and the deceased. In reality, this can’t be further from the truth. 

What happens is that most people aren’t comfortable talking about death. They fear they’ll say the wrong thing, or they don’t know what to say in response to death. You can help your loved ones deal with their anniversary reactions by not being afraid to bring up the deceased by name. Talk about them, share special memories, and tell all the stories you can muster in your recollection. 

Death Anniversaries and Grief

Grieving doesn’t automatically end after a year of grieving or any other marked date on the calendar. Feelings of sadness, pain, and sorrow will continue to come and go well after the date of loss. 

For some people, this can mean that they’ll struggle with their grief for years. Others may only feel the effects of lingering grief during birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries. You may think that the pain of loss will never subside, but remember that you or your loved ones won’t always feel the way you do now. 

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