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Anniversary Reaction - Coping with the Anniversary of an Event

Updated on September 11, 2014

Understanding the Anniversary Response

Anniversaries are often happy occasions, but coping with the anniversary of the death of a loved one, a natural disaster or a national trauma can be difficult for those left behind.

Remembering, recalling and reliving a tragic loss or traumatic event can be very painful. Anniversary dates often bring up the grief and distressing memories as though the loss is new.

Whether it's the first, the sixth, the tenth or the umpteenth anniversary of a death or a tragedy, for survivors it can be very tough to make it through the days and even weeks leading up to the anniversary and then to live through the actual day of the event.

Coping with the anniversary of the death of a loved one, the loss of a public figure, dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster such as the Japanese Tsunami and Earthquake or Hurricane Katrina or the national trauma of September 11, 2001 can be very challenging not only for family and friends of the person who has died, but also for survivors and witnesses of these events.

There are many things that survivors can do to make marking the anniversary date a bit easier by taking how you will choose to celebrate into your own hands.

Read on to find out more general information about the normal anniversary reaction to an event and the body's response along with helpful suggestions for coping prior to and on the actual date of the anniversary.

Image of Candle by Cohdra.

What is an Anniversary Reaction or Response?

Defining an Anniversary Reaction

A sudden unexpected rush of memories, intense emotions and feelings of grief related to the anniversary of a traumatic event.

Anniversary Reaction - A Brief Definition defines an Anniversary reaction as...

A psychological reaction, as depression, occurring at a regularly fixed time and associated with the recollection of an emotionally upsetting past experience, as loss of a loved one.

Definition of an Anniversary Reaction

Anniversary dates of a tragic event, the actual date of the death, the birth date of a loved one, holidays or other special occasions are common triggers for an Anniversary reaction or a grief response; this is a sudden unexpected rush of memories, intense emotions and feelings of grief.

While it is normal for many people to experience an increase in distressing memories of the date and of the event, it is also important for the person experiencing these intense feelings to realize these types of reactions are usually normal anniversary reactions.

Formal Definition - Anniversary Reaction

The National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder provides the following formal definition of an Anniversary Reaction:

  • On the anniversary of traumatic events, some people may find that they experience an increase in distressing memories of the event. These memories may be triggered by reminders, but memories may also seem to come from out of the blue while at work, home, or doing recreational activities. An increase in distress around the anniversary of a traumatic event is commonly known as an "anniversary reaction" and can range from feeling mildly upset for a day or two to a more extreme reaction in which an individual experiences significant psychiatric or medical symptoms.
Source: Hamblen J, Friedman M, Schnurr P. 2010. Anniversary Reactions: Research Findings. National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Anniversary Dates Cause Nervousness

Nervousness is building ahead

of the one-year anniversary of September 11,

and it's bound to continue

until we get that date behind us.

Art Hogan

Image to Honor the Fallen by Kevin Smith.

What you can do when remembering isn't always a Happy Occasion?

Summer Months Hold Many Anniversaries

There seems to be something about the summer months; the hold the anniversary dates for many deaths and causes of destruction. In fact there were so many deaths during the summer of 2009, it has been called the Summer of Death. This was also the summer that we lost Farrah Fawcett, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Ted Kennedy.

From the end of June to the middle of September we experience:

  • * The 5th year anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson (June 29, 2009)
  • * The 9th year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (August 29, 2005)
  • * The 17th year anniversary of the death of Princess Diana (August 31, 1997)
  • * The 8th year anniversary of the death of Steve Irwin (Sept 4, 2006)
  • * The 17th year anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa (September 5, 1997)
  • * The 13th year of September 11th (Sept 11, 2001)

With the exception of the death of Mother Teresa, which occurred only days after Princess Diana's death, all of these events resulted in deaths that were sudden, unexpected and unanticipated.

Finding ways to cope with the anniversary of the death of a loved one, the loss of a public figure, dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster or a national trauma like September 11, 2001 can be very hard. The deaths not only affect the family and friends of the person who has died, but also affect the survivors and witnesses of the tragic events.

Anniversary Reactions are Upsurges in Grief

Grief and Loss expert Dr. Therese A. Rando has this to say about the anniversary reaction in her classic book, How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies.

Anniversary reactions are brief upsurges in your grief that occur during certain times of the year (for example, during anniversaries of important events, birthdays or holidays) or in the presencesof certain stimuli (for example a special, song, photograph, or location).

These are the days on which you are most reminded of your loss by the painful absence of the person who you love.

Therese A. Rando

How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies

What are Common Anniversary Responses?

Common Anniversary Responses

The anniversary reaction involves days, weeks or even months prior to the anniversary date. Survivors may experience certain feeling, emotions and symptoms that are experienced before and/or around an anniversary date.

These are often referred to as the anniversary responses, or the body's response to the anniversary of an event. Survivors of loss must learn how to cope with a variety of intense complex emotions and physical responses along with psychological, physiological and spiritual responses.

Common anniversary responses include anxiety, anger, nightmares, flashbacks, depression and fear. Anniversary responses may also include:

  • Regret
  • Sadness
  • Frustration
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Nightmares
  • Depression
  • Flashbacks
  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Eating disorders
  • Avoidance of reminders of the disaster
  • Reflection on the way in which life has changed

Defining an Anniversary Reaction

How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies
How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies
One of the classic books on coping with the death of a loved one.

Frayed Heart

Franci Strümpfer
Franci Strümpfer

Frayed Red Heart by Franci Strümpfer.

What can I do to Cope with an Anniversary?

Ways to Cope with a Difficult Anniversary

There are many things that survivors can do to help them cope with a difficult anniversary date and make it through the days leading up to the anniversary date.

One of the key things for those facing the anniversary of a tragic event, like 9-11 or the Challenger Shuttle Disaster is to avoid watching new reports and news coverage about the tragic events, since the horrifying video clips of the explosions are replayed again and again.

Some additional helpful coping strategies for include:

  1. Talk with others about your thoughts and feelings. Talking with others is one way that many people find helpful in the healing process.
  2. Take time to relax.
  3. Focus on rebuilding yourself and/or your community.
  4. Take care of your health.
  5. Make time to attend to the needs of family, especially children.
  6. Focus on the good times you shared with your loved one, rather than the loss.
  7. Limit your exposure to news reports about the tragic event. This is key for those who may become more anxious, sad or distressed by watching news coverage.

Note to Self

Be kind to myself on the anniversary date.

Take some special time to remember.

Do something kind for someone else in memory of my loved one.

Image by Lusmi82
Image by Lusmi82

The Secret Anniversaries of the Heart

A beautiful quote for Anniversary Reaction...

The holiest of all holidays

are those kept by ourselves

in silence and apart;

the secret anniversaries of the heart.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Red Rose by Lusmi82

What can I do on the day of the anniversary?

Remembering the Anniversary Alone

Image by Stephie S
Image by Stephie S

The next two anniversaries,

I will be sitting

at home, by myself.

Debra Shaw

Day Dreaming by Stephie S.

Ways of Coping on the Date of the Anniversary

Some people may want to be around others on the day of the anniversary, others may want to remember more quietly and privately.

Planning how you want to spend the anniversary date can make it an easier to get through the day. Whether you choose to celebrate or commemorate, deciding what to do can put the control of the date back into your hands.

The following list is a collection of suggestions that I have compiled over the years with different activities and ideas of what to do on the actual anniversary date:

  1. Gather with friends and families reminisce and tell favorite stories or memories about the person who has died.
  2. Plan a remembrance service, celebration of life or find a special way of honoring the loved one lost.
  3. Take flowers to the grave site, memorial site or location of the tragedy.
  4. Plan a distraction, such as a weekend away or a visit with friends or relatives.
  5. Create a roadside memorial for a love one who has died in a car accident.
  6. Make a donation to a charitable organization in the person's name on birthdays or holidays.
  7. Build an ofrenda or altar with portraits, personal goods, clothing, favorite foods and possessions of the deceased family member.
  8. Make a toast or say a prayer or blessing at the start of a family meal.
  9. Listen to their favorite music.
  10. Light a candle.
  11. Look at old photos or videos.
  12. Share memories over tea.
  13. Plant a tree.
  14. Establish a scholarship.
  15. Dedicate a bench or plaque.
  16. Write letters or a journal to the loved one to express your feelings.
  17. Create a new tradition. This can be very helpful during the holidays. Instead of celebrating the same place and the same way as when the loved one was alive, find a new place and a new way.

What are some ways to heal after a major loss?

Image by Hillary Gracier
Image by Hillary Gracier

One Year Anniversary

A meaningful quote on the Year Anniversary...

I think the year anniversary

kind of puts an end to

that period of time

when the mourning is over.

Laura DunhamImage of Woman Mourning by Hillary Gracier.

Ways of Healing Following a Major Loss

Many of the ways people find helpful for coping with the distress from an anniversary response, are also ways of helping with the healing process.

  1. Create a way of honoring the loved one who has died. (See the Coping During Times of Stress for suggestions.)
  2. Start new holiday traditions. Find a new place and a new way to celebrate.
  3. Find a way to symbolize or express grief--creatively or otherwise. Expressing the grief, even just in writing or in art, may be a better way of coping than than denying or avoiding it.
  4. Start an organization or cause in your loved one's memory.
  5. Volunteer your time and/or talents. Helping others can be very healing.
  6. Donate in memory of a loved one. Many worthy organizations benefit survivors and victims.
  7. Attend public memorials and ceremonies that mark the anniversary of the tragedy, disaster or other event. Organized ceremonies draw survivors together and allow them to share feelings with others who have been through the same traumatic experience.
  8. Allow yourself to experience feelings of sorrow, sadness and the sense of loss.
  9. Take time to be alone with your thoughts, in remembrance or in prayer.

Articles on the Anniversary Reactions - Understanding Survivors Response to Anniversary Dates

As the anniversary of a disaster or traumatic event approaches, many survivors report a return of restlessness and fear. Psychological literature calls it the anniversary reaction and defines it as an individual's response to unresolved grief resulting from significant losses.

The anniversary reaction can involve several days or even weeks of anxiety, anger, nightmares, flashbacks, depression, or fear.

Books for Surviving Anniversaries and the Holidays

A collection of helpful books to help in coping with the holidays and anniversaries following the death of a loved one, written by some of the leading grief and loss experts in the field.

Image by  Beniamin Pop
Image by Beniamin Pop

Most People Feel Better in a Week or Two

  • Most people will feel better within a week or two after the anniversary. Over time, the stress symptoms will decrease in both frequency and severity.
  • People may find it helpful to make specific plans for the anniversary day so that they have other things to occupy their time besides memories of the event.
  • Some may choose to participate in a commemorative ceremony such as visiting a grave, making a charitable donation, giving blood, helping others, or dedicating the day to spending time with family.
Source: Hamblen J, Friedman M, Schnurr P. 2007. Anniversary Reactions: A National Center for PTSD Fact Sheet. National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Image of Composition by Beniamin Pop.

Books for On Living After the Loss of Loved One

A collection of books to help in coping with the holidays and anniversaries following the death of a loved one, written by some of the leading grief and loss experts in the field.

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross on Mourning

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross offered the following words of wisdom about the mourning and living again:

People in mourning have to come to grips with death before they can live again. Mourning can go on for years and years. It doesn't end after a year, that's a false fantasy.

It usually ends when people realize that they can live again, that they can concentrate their energies on their lives as a whole, and not on their hurt, and guilt and pain.

Elisabeth Kubler Ross, MD

Briefly share if there is a particular anniversary that is difficult for you.

Learning to Live Again

Slowly following a significant loss, the survivor learns to live again.

The grieving process involves learning to adapt and adjust to a life forever changed by the loss, a life that can change in many different ways. This may involve developing new skills, changing a circle of friends, moving, changing jobs, giving up activities and taking on new responsibilities.

Piece by piece, I reenter the world.

A new phase. A new body, a new voice.

Birds console me by flying, trees by growing,

dogs by the warm patch they leave on the sofa.

Unknown people merely by performing their motions.

It's like a slow recovery from a sickness, this recovery of one's self.

Tony Talbot

Remembering 9/11

Image by Michael Bloomberg
Image by Michael Bloomberg

Remembering the Anniversary of September 11, 2001

On the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11th attack here in New York City,

we plan to mark this solemn occasion by asking siblings to take the lead in this year's ceremony.

In this small way, we acknowledge the special bonds they share with their beloved brothers and sisters who died that day.

Michael Bloomberg

Mayor, New York CityThe Federal Reserve Building by Daniel Norton

Books on the 10th Anniversary of September 11, 2001

Books from Those Left Behind After September 11, 2001

Prior Remembrances of September 11, 2001

Some of the resources from the Sixth Anniversary of The September 11th Tragedy.

Keep the Flame Burning

Image by Richard McMillan
Image by Richard McMillan

Candle by Richard McMillan

Remembering Other Anniversaries

Remembering Diana

Image by Nic Pepsi
Image by Nic Pepsi

Anniversaries are Particularly Difficult

I do find

the anniversaries particularly difficult,

as do all our family.

Charles, Earl Spencer

Brother of Diana, Princess of Wales

The Round Lake by Nic Pepsi.

Remembering Steve Irwin

Sorrow and Lasting Pain behind the Faces

Behind the positive faces

they have shown the world since

that dreadful day,

there can be no doubt there is still deep sorrow and lasting pain.

Sydney's Daily Telegraph

November 15 was designated as a commemorative day in honor Steve Irwin, with suggested family activities including wearing khaki and camping in the backyard. It has become a day to honor the crocodile hunter.

The day will represent the many things Steve was passionate about.

Get ready to don your khaki's mate.

Remembering Katrina

Image by Amanda Barbarich
Image by Amanda Barbarich

Hurricane Katrina - A Significant Anniversary

On holding Mardi Gras the year after Katrina.I've heard some people say

we can't do it.

But it's a very significant anniversary and I can't imagine it going unmarked without some kind of parade.

It's in our soul to have Mardi Gras.

Arthur Hardy, Voice of Mardi Gras

A Tribute to the Victims of Hurricane Katrina by Amanda Barbarich.

Are you affected by Anniversary Reactions?


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