Birthdays and wedding anniversaries are the kinds of happy occasions that we love to celebrate year after year, reveling in the memories of the original joyful event. But there are dark anniversaries, too—ones that mark the day when we suffered a bad accident or were diagnosed with a serious health problem…when a loved one died…when a storm, tornado or other natural disaster destroyed our community…or when our nation endured a tragedy, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11.
Whenever that kind of disturbing anniversary draws near, we are likely to reexperience some degree of the devastating emotions from that traumatic time. What can we do to get through intensely difficult anniversaries?
To find out, Daily Health News turned to an internationally renowned clinical psychologist who has seen firsthand what can help the most. Judy Kuriansky, PhD, has led healing workshops all over the world designed to help people recover from traumatic events. She has personally provided psychological care to survivors and victims’ families after many tragedies, including the 9/11 attacks…Hurricane Katrina…earthquakes in San Francisco, Australia, Haiti and China…and the 2011 tsunami/earthquake in Japan. Her insights can help you, too. What to do…
Prepare in advance for the emotional onslaught. Often people don’t realize the impact that a dark anniversary is going to have until, a few days or weeks before the date, they become anxious, irritable or depressed. “By anticipating the likelihood of experiencing painful emotions, you can plan ahead, arranging activities for the anniversary date that will help ease your distress. For instance, you might plan a day trip to visit family, schedule a special dinner with a close friend or just distract yourself with a simple but satisfying task like organizing your closets or computer files,” Dr. Kuriansky suggested.
Recognize the legitimacy of different coping styles. Some people feel a need to discuss a sad event in detail on its yearly anniversary, while others simply want to put it out of their minds. Neither style is worse or better than the other. For couples, when partners’ styles are in sync—they both want to share heartfelt reminiscences or they both want to stay busy to keep distressing memories at bay—it works out well.
When partners’ coping styles differ, though, conflicts can arise. As a New York City therapist, Dr. Kuriansky has seen this often in the years since 9/11—with marital tensions growing when, for example, a wife wants to talk about her ongoing fears but the husband wants to just move on. Fortunately, such conflicts can be resolved. The key in such cases is to respect your loved one’s needs while also respecting your own. For the person who needs to talk, that means finding another caring friend or a therapist with whom to have the majority of the difficult anniversary discussions…for the person who doesn’t want to dwell on the event, it means being loving enough to let the partner talk a little whenever his/her need is greatest.
Build new, happier memories to associate with the date. Of course, you may want to honor a lost loved one or others who suffered…or acknowledge a formidable challenge that you were forced to face. But dealing with the difficult anniversary is less upsetting if you also find a meaningful way to associate the date with new pleasant experiences. For instance, you might make it your new practice to visit a different national park each year on or around the anniversary.
Participate in public memorials…but don’t rely solely on them. Research has shown that people who attend public memorial services and/or participate in group workshops for community members who have experienced a collective trauma, such as Hurricane Katrina, tend to gain emotional strength and resilience, form new community connections and feel more secure. Look for such opportunities and make a point of taking part. Recognize, though, that in memorializing public tragedies, community officials and news outlets tend to pay attention to certain “marker number” anniversaries—for example, the fifth, the 10th, the 25th. For the in-between years, Dr. Kuriansky said, it’s helpful to devise your own memorial ritual, such as joining with friends to help plant memorial bushes in each other’s gardens.
What about cases of personal loss—for instance, a loved one’s death from a particular disease such as cancer or heart disease? Research shows that there are benefits to participating in activities that bring together people who share that kind of loss or a common commitment to combating the problem. For example, you might join with family members to develop a Web site that memorializes your lost loved one. Or on a more public stage, you could participate in the American Cancer Society’s “Relay for Life”…the American Heart Association’s “National Wear Red Day”…or Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s “Walk Like MADD.”
Take comfort in the knowledge that after trauma comes growth. Dr. Kuriansky explained that psychological research on post-traumatic growth proves that, as painful as a traumatic experience is, it also can bring new strength and new opportunities. “Once you’ve faced and survived something you thought was more awful than you could endure, you discover new skills, perspectives or meaningfulness. This kind of growth may lead you to take practical steps to improve your life,” she said.
For instance, you may find the motivation to quit a frustrating job that leaves you unfulfilled…to end a toxic relationship…or to confirm a more optimistic philosophy of life whereby you look at the glass as half full instead of half empty. Or, recognizing the essential truth that every day spent with loved ones is a precious gift, you might feel moved to forge new friendships or to renew family ties that have frayed. As you acknowledge the fact that sorrow can be a path toward wisdom, the power of the dark anniversary diminishes…and the future looks brighter.