The mental health community would agree that healthy grieving of a death can take up to a year. What is less talked about, however, is the unexpected reactions that may continue to come up. Anniversaries, birthdays, or special events or reminders of the loved one, even new unrelated losses can bring up all those old feelings you thought you left at the funeral home. You may find yourself crying easily, eating less or more, sleeping less or more, thinking about your lost loved one more than usual. Or you might just note a more subtle feeling of "the blues", not wanting to be social, irritability, or low energy. Having a loss around the holidays, particularly a formerly treasured holiday, can make dealing with these feelings even more difficult because of the cultural emphasis on and your own expectation for fun, laughs, family togetherness, and overall good times. Also, as the economy and modern living result in the family spreading further apart geographically, it can be more difficult to access the needed physical support of loved ones.
There are some things that have helped me to deal with the residual anniversary grief I have felt with my grandfather's death, so that it is manageable and lessens each year. I will list a few things here that I have done, and also some other suggestions too:
1. Plan ahead - There are so many things in life that we handle with ease when we take the time to connect with our inner selves, become self-aware, and make a plan. Whether you are giving a presentation at work, or walking down the aisle, having a plan for feelings or reactions that are likely to come up will help you feel in control and calm. Also, noting your grief anniversary day in the calendar and being sure to schedule your day (especially with nurturing or fun activities) can help to provide a healthy distraction and give you the extra TLC you need. This might be a spa day, inviting guests over for a party, or asking good friends if you can be included in their plans.
2. Get Social - One of the hallmarks of depression is a feeling of wanting to isolate, which when indulged can make the depression worse. Recognizing the tendency to withdraw, or wanting to hide away, requires honesty with yourself and the motivation to push yourself to initiate contact with supportive others. Call a friend, get together with family who were also close with your loved one, or get involved in a community event. Fireworks show, anyone?
3. Get Outdoors - Anyone who lives by the beach, chooses to live in a cabin in the woods, or gazes at a backdrop of mountains every day intuitively understands the healing powers of nature. Our skin soaks up Vitamin D that improves our mood and immune system, fresh air fills our lungs, nature sounds soothe our psyche, and all the creatures we encounter remind us that life is bigger than us and our problems.
4. Get Moving - If you can do this in nature, even better! Exercise improves mood, energy, and gives us a rush of natural endorphins. We have our antidepressants already built-in and immediately accessible!
5. Start a New Tradition - So the holidays aren't the same after Nana died. Rather than dwelling in the past, reminisce about the good 'ole days and then get started on a new tradition with your immediate family. Maybe Nana loved a certain dish. Teach your kids to help you prepare this dish and serve it every year as part of the celebration. Or you could do something completely new and different, that makes you feel good about yourself and your community, like donating your time and/or resources to a particular cause or charity around the grief anniversary. Or take the time to honor your loved one, their importance in your life, and commemorate them by doing something on the anniversary (like writing a blog!)
6. Remember that You Are Still Connected - Your loved one is no longer on Earth, but your souls are still connected. When you notice a sign, a symbol, a person, a particular flower/bird/animal, a smell, or a sound that reminds you of your loved one, rather than thinking of it as a random occurrence, you can choose to think of it as your loved one giving you a little hug, or reminding you that they love you. Their essence will never die, and you will have many opportunities to reconnect with it.
7. Know When to Get Professional Help - If your grief is all-consuming and gets in the way of daily living such as work, relationships, or leisure activities, or it persists longer than just the anniversary time, or you are consistently using drugs, alcohol, food, or sex to cope, you might need the assistance of a licensed therapist or support group. A therapist will compassionately listen to your concerns, no matter how crazy or weird you think they may be. A therapist can help teach you healthier coping skills that will help you tolerate the bad feelings without adding secondary consequences (such as hangovers, trouble at work, relationship strains, weight gain/poor health, etc.). Once you are coping better, you can move toward healing. The support of a group, such as the Mind-Body Skills Group I offer, can help you to realize that you are not alone, and also provide you with new intimate relationships with compassionate others that support your healing. Above all, it is important to recognize that feelings such as grief and depression are normal parts of the human experience in response to loss, significant change, or traumatic events. The problem comes when you become stuck in these feelings. Appropriately moving through these feelings and life experiences is a skill. A trained professional can skillfully and compassionately guide you through your difficult time. Avoiding it or numbing it will not make it go away, it only delays the healing.
So there you go. A few tips to help you survive your next anniversary of loss. It is a part of life that we will all inevitably experience, to one degree or another. Through our sadness and grief we have the opportunity to experience the richness of life; the contrast between the infectious giggles of pure joy, the heart-swelling love between parent and child, the excitement and passion of something new, and the pride of seeing someone important to us reach seemingly unsurmountable heights. Moving through these emotions define what it is to be human, to be living, to be thriving.