We have learned that in the aftermath of traumatic events, the unconscious has an uncanny sense of timing and the body remembers.
- “I was anxious all day – I didn’t realize until night that it was the 4th Anniversary of my son’s death in Iraq.”
- “There’s something about the feel of the air and the angle of the sun on days before 9/11 that trips me and I’m crying with those images of the devastation and horror.
The Anniversaries of traumatic events carry with them the pain of remembering and the promise of finding a way to go on. Much like the impact of trauma itself- they won’t let us forget until we find a way to remember on our own terms.
What are Anniversary Reactions?
Whether you have faced a personal trauma, a natural disaster, the horrors of war or a catastrophe like 9/11, you may find yourself experiencing anniversary reactions. These may include feelings of anxiety, fear, anger and guilt; bodily symptoms including problems with sleep, fatigue, concentration and startle response; traumatic memories and flashbacks; grief and sadness tied to the date of the traumatic event but experienced in the present. These are common. They may be experienced for days or weeks before and after the anniversary date.
As one 9/11 widow described “ The feelings of anxiety and sadness used to start in July – this year they didn’t start until the last week of August.”
Why Do I Have These Reactions?
What you are experiencing makes sense physically and psychologically. Trauma, catastrophe and devastating loss can’t be integrated in a day. The recovery process involves remembering and mourning as well as connection with the present and future as a way to move forward. Many see the reactions to the Anniversary Event as the body and minds way of stopping, re-visiting and taking in what happened – perhaps in a safer place with more and more resilience.
How Do I Handle These Reactions?
Don’t be afraid to share – Sharing your reactions, be it with others who have experienced the trauma, spiritual groups, bereavement groups, family, even on-line support groups, is a way of validating and normalizing them. It is a relief to hear that others are steeling themselves for the date, feeling somewhat overwhelmed, or more saddened on or around that day.
Don’t judge yourself – People are often worried if they feel worse than they had the year before.
“What’s wrong with me?”
The road out of trauma is rarely a straight one and everyone moves at their own pace. Too often those suffering as well as others fail to account for the “unevents.” These are the challenges in life that go on when the funeral is over and the press goes home. It may be that five years after Katrina when the possibility of re-building is still unknown or eighteen years after 9/11 when a misses the father she hardly knew walking her down the aisle – an anniversary event and its meaning will be felt more powerfully.
Don’t be afraid to remember – Anniversary reactions are indicators of great love as well as great pain. Use the event as an opportunity to remind yourself and others, if you choose, of the treasured memories you will always carry of the people, places or way of life that you loved. Use your memories to strengthen your resolve.
Do it your way- Whether a personal trauma or a major catastrophe, people need to find a way to deal with an anniversary event in a way that best suits them.
- For some, public memorials are valued as an opportunity to bear witness to pain as well as to publicly acknowledge the special qualities and importance of the loved one. It allows them to feel the connection of collective loss as well as collective support.
- For others there is a need to tailor the event in a way that bears witness privately or to be away from the place and memory of that day. Everyone grieves in their way and on their time.
Remember the children – Children need support in coping with Anniversary Events. Events that offer them an option suited to their age be it writing letters to loved ones, sending off balloons tied with messages or attending a family memorial event can be invaluable to them.
Teens particularly need the option of coming together with family and friends, as well as the option to mourn and remember on their own terms. Many 9/11 kids who are now college students choose to stay at school and remember in their own way.
Balance remembering and re-traumatizing- Anniversary events pose the dilemma of finding the line between remembering and re-traumatizing – the intensifying of trauma-related stress by cues and symbols of the past trauma experience. Establishing this balance often depends on the nature of the trauma.
- When someone has suffered a personal trauma, their anniversary reactions are led by their own internal cues or external cues that may or may not become personal triggers. They may remember and react to past trauma or forget it on that particular day.
- Catastrophic events like hurricanes, 9/11, school shootings, terrorist attacks, etc. that involve death, injury and inexplicable loss to many are different. They draw media coverage and as such – there is no choice to forget. For some the media plays a crucial part in bearing witness to the pain, memorializing loss, and supporting recovery. For others, the media coverage feels re-traumatizing.
The Protective Factors
Those factors that serve to mitigate the physical and emotional pain of anniversary reactions involve:
- Self Care like the moderation of media exposure and attention to body safety – sleep, eating, exercise, stress reducing activities.
- Freedom to commemorate and grieve on one’s one terms.
- Connection with others.
- Recognition and use of personal resilience traits like intelligence, spirituality, creativity, and social networks to support coping.
- Use of professional guidance to support recovery if needed.
The Positive Meaning of Anniversary Events
In addition to bearing witness to the unthinkable and memorializing the traumatic loss of loved ones and life as it once was, anniversary events bear witness to another year of courage shown and steps taken. They need to commemorate the baseball games played without a Dad, the athletic efforts of a wounded veteran or the resolve to build again despite an oil spill. Anniversary events are about affirming that no matter what is in the path there is a future worth walking towards.
The Promise of Anniversary Events is the ability to Hold on to Hope.