Some anniversaries are neutral. “Oh, that happened five years ago.” Some feel like an accomplishment. “Wow, I’ve had this job for three years already.” And then there are the ones that feel terrible. Trauma anniversaries might bring more abundant flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms. Anniversaries of loss might bring a resurgence of grief.
We might want to dismiss a difficult anniversary as no longer relevant, but the body insistently brings it to our attention. Even when we are not aware of the exact date, our bodies track the time of year through the angle of light, smells in the air, type of clothes we wear, and other sensory input.
Is this old?
We wonder why we’re so off-balance, and then realize it is the day of the car crash, or the assault, or the death of a dear friend. Or maybe we know that a certain time period is hard for us and dread it coming around every year.
When we acknowledge our feelings and ask, “Is this old?” we can get a welcome sliver of distance. Old feelings can be intense and absorbing, and at the same time we know that they will pass. Since they are from the past, there is nothing we need to do to fix them. We can let them wash over us like a wave, and come up for air in the present. We can also reach out for support, letting others know about the anniversary.
The first step to improve a difficult anniversary is to notice that it is not the time of year itself that brings distress, but our associations with it. That separation makes room for change. We can work with the distress directly, and also build more positive present-time associations with the time of year.
For example, if Fall is a difficult time, you can acknowledge the painful feelings, and also notice what you enjoy about the season. There might be colorful trees around you, or you might enjoy the feeling of wearing long sleeves, or you might like the foods that come into season in Fall. Even if nothing enjoyable comes to mind at first, bringing your attention to the present mixes some light and air with old pain.
Paying attention to the present also helps us connect with our adult Witness self, who can make room for old feelings without being overwhelmed by them. Some quick ways to connect to the present moment: take a breath, drink some water, stamp your feet, wash your hands, go for a walk, or anything else that works for you. Remind yourself, “These feelings are old. They will pass.” You can set feelings aside in the room when they get too big.
An ongoing meditation practice can help strengthen your adult witness self. A meditation practice can be as simple as: pause for a few minutes and notice whatever happens during that time, including resistance to noticing.
Anniversaries can bring up split-off parts that hold emotional intensity from a traumatic event. We can invite those parts closer during the rest of the year so they can integrate and heal rather than being frozen in time.
An anniversary can bring up thoughts that everything is the same. “I can’t believe I’m still in this place!” or “I can’t believe I’m in this place again.” Or, an anniversary of a loss can bring up thoughts that everything is different, “I’ll never have that again.”
Usually our brains prefer one or the other. Either we want everything to be the same so that we can manage it all together, or we want everything to be different so it does not become overwhelming. Paying attention to both can help anchor us in the present.
Practice both sides
When a troubling anniversary comes around, list a few things that are the same as last year, and a few things that are different. If your brain prefers sameness and struggles with difference, you could note that you are a year older, with another year of experiences to bring to this anniversary. You might have learned new skills or made new friends. If nothing else, the weather is probably different than it was on this day last year. Even if the pattern feels exactly the same, moving through it with awareness is already a change.
If your brain prefers differences and struggles with sameness, you could recall a memory of how things were last year, and note that you can still feel how you felt then. The capacity for that feeling is inside you and cannot be taken away. Perhaps you sit at the same desk, or visit the same places, or see the same people.
Birthdays and holidays
Birthdays can be an annual trigger for many people. They are supposed to be happy occasions, so it can be even more painful to remember being abused during a birthday. Some parents cannot let their child be the center of attention even on that special day, so they are cruel and demeaning to make the child feel small.
Birthdays can be a reminder of inexorable aging. They can also be a marker of what we “should” have accomplished by a certain age, even though everyone’s circumstances and resources and path through life are different.
Similarly, holidays can also bring up painful memories of lost good times, or painful contrast between loneliness and the cozy family experience we are “supposed” to have. You can spend some time with what you want for your holiday or birthday, as well as noticing what is the same and different from other years.
Untangle with kindness
Our brains are wired to see patterns and associate memories with times of year. Each time we move through the cycle of the seasons, memories come up to be acknowledged and healed. When we can be a kind witness for our hurting selves, we can untangle painful feelings from the time of year that brings them up, bringing more ease in the present, and laying the foundation for more peace in the future.
- The same/difference exercise is from Kathy Kain.
- Former Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts’ book Death Without Denial Grief Without Apology is a loving clear-eyed unflinchingly personal look at terminal illness, death, and grief, including coping with anniversaries of loss.