As the holidays and end of the year approach, many experience the recurrence of grief as they remember happy times with a deceased loved one. Loss and grief are among the most powerful emotions we can experience. When grief recurs, particularly in relation to the pain of holidays, it can be confusing and overwhelming.
During the holiday season, symptoms of grief that have previously relented might suddenly return, and it can seem as though one is actively grieving again. This experience is known as an “anniversary reaction” or “anniversary grief.”
It’s common for waves of grief to overwhelm and disrupt the process of adjustment, as described by Rando. Although anniversary reactions can occur for many years following a loved one’s death, they are usually felt most keenly during this first year as milestones are confronted. Holiday milestones can be particularly difficult as anticipation builds.
The deeper truth of loss is that we are never truly finished with grieving when someone significant to us dies. However, there are many ways to live with the loss without suffering from it.Symptoms can include anxiety, anger, and difficulty sleeping, including waking up early or falling asleep. Sadness, crying, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and focusing, and loss of interest in social activities can also be common. Additionally, symptoms may be more than emotional changes. Often, intrusive memories of the loss and memories of past celebrations return.
The deeper truth of loss is that we are never truly finished with grieving when someone significant to us dies. However, there are many ways to live with the loss without suffering from it. It is important to know the return of grief is a normal part of the healing process.
Here are some suggestions to manage the reactions to anniversary grief during the holidays:
- Change holiday gatherings to limit painful reminders. Gather for a breakfast meal instead of the traditional dinner and consider having another person host the holiday if you traditionally did so.
- Consider volunteering for a charity activity as a way of honoring the lost loved one.
- Use your support system and reach out to friends and loved ones to help you through. Tell them which memories may be most difficult and how you would prefer to handle them. Give yourself permission to limit participation in family or social gatherings as needed. Be mindful of your support system during these times, and remain connected.
- Reconnect with a counselor or bereavement support group.
- Be gentle toward yourself and handle your memories with care. You can choose which memories to focus on and decide to release particular memories if they create longing or hold you in the past in an unpleasant way.
- Calm your pain by focusing on both the sad and happy memories shared with your loved one. Recalling happy memories can help ease the pain of the loss.
- Create space to intentionally remember and grieve regularly. Use this time to consciously recall memories and set the memories aside. Some find it helpful to imagine a container for these memories, which can be opened and closed as needed.
- Rituals and memorials are helpful for acknowledging the anniversary while also containing the emotional intensity of the event. Draw on your culture, family traditions, and religious or spiritual beliefs to guide you in the creation of a meaningful remembrance.
- Corr, C. A., Nabe, C. M. and & Corr, D. M. (1997). Death and Dying, Life and Living, Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.
- Rando, T. A. (1993). Treatment of Complicated Mourning. Champaign, IL: Research Press.
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