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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Anniversary Reactions

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Sep 8th 2007

Have you ever had the experience of feeling mildly or severely depressed or stressed but for no reason you are able to identify? It happens to us all the time. For example, one day you are aware of having a headache, feeling tired and gloomy but you have no idea why. Friends and co workers comment that you do not appear to be your usual enthusiastic self. If you are a woman a girl friend may even ask if you are in PMS. Others may inquire as to whether you have the flu. They comment that you seem irritable and temperamental and you were not aware that you were acting that way.

Sometimes it takes someone who is a close friend, or it may take your spouse to remind you that today is the anniversary of your mother's death, or of the loss of a good friend or of your having been in a disaster some years ago. Suddenly, your memory is jogged and it all falls into place. You realize that you have been mourning one or another of these tragic or traumatic events in your life.

Every year, around December first or near the end of November I become aware of feeling "upset" but, in the business of my life I completely forget that it is the anniversary of the death of my mother decades ago. I thought that I had mourned her loss and should have no difficulty remembering when she died but, each year I go through this pattern of feeling not quite right until my wife reminds me of the anniversary.

Anniversaries are powerful occurrences whether we remember them or not. Many times patients in my practice report for the session stating that they feel depressed, anxious or physically not well but are baffled as to why. Further exploration during the session often reveals the startling fact that something terrible happened to them many years ago. The revelation is sometimes shocking because the event had been repressed. Upon recovery of the memory of the anniversary many people are really shocked that they could have forgotten such an important event. Only a few people initially doubt that the memory could have any impact today because it had occurred long ago but even they eventually admit to the truth of the impact of the event upon their lives.

Forgotten anniversaries can have more than a benign impact on us. There are those people who, unaware of what happened long ago, suddenly fall ill or have an accident or even begin to feel suicidal without knowing why. There are tragic circumstances in which an individual may actually attempt suicide because of the depth of their depression. In fact there are those who attempt suicide upon the anniversary of a parent's death by suicide many years before. It is thought that for some of these people there is a wish to rejoin the lost individual by joining them in death.

It is known that elderly people who have been married to the same person for many decades suddenly pass way on the first anniversary of the death of their deceased husband or wife. It is also reported that individuals dies when they reach the age at which their parents passed away. For example, there are those who, if a parent died at age 65 will become ill and die when they achieve the same age of 65. An example of this was the death of Elvis Presley at age 41, the exact age at which his mother had died.

It is thought that these things happen because the death an important individual may not have been fully or properly mourned. Such reactions as survivor guilt, in which an individual is convinced that they should have died with family and friends in an accident or disaster, can provide an early death. In addition, unrealistic and unresolved guilt or grief reactions can lead to illness or death at or just before the anniversary of the death of a spouse, mother, father or child.

There are certain things that can be done to avoid or minimize a repeat of a tragedy or loss. While it is normal to experience grief and depression after the death of a loved one that reaction should begin to gradually abate during a six month to one year period after the death. If this does not happen the grief stricken individual should be referred for psychotherapy and medication. Medication can relieve the depression but the therapy is necessary to work through and resolve all types of thoughts and reactions in relationship to the loss.

In the same way, those who have lived through severe traumatic events should be helped with psychotherapy in order that they come to an understanding of their survivor guilt and other feelings and reactions connected with PTSD.

I guess the main point to be kept in mind is to remember that events that happened in the past continue to impact and impinge upon our lives even if we do not thinks so. The brain is a great computer that storehouses all types of memories and emotional reactions to those memories. It is important to not dismiss past tragedies and losses but rather to acknowledge them and let them into our awareness.

Your comments are welcome and encouraged.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    Thank You - - Sep 24th 2013

    Thank you so much for this article.

    It will be  7 years since the death of my loved one this upcoming Sunday and I couldn't figure out what was going on!  I'm having loss of appetite, crankiness, fatigue.....it all makes sense and the comments are very helpful as well.  

    suicide loss - laura - Jul 1st 2013

    thank you for posting this article!  i was just trying to explain this exact thing to a friend a few days ago... you said it very well. 

    i lost my only sibling to suicide nearly 3 years ago now.  i've had days where i'm just a bumbling, crying mess and then i realize it was an anniversary-- of maybe the last time i spoke to him, the last time i saw him, the last email i got from him... some kind of "last" that my subconscious never forgets.

    i've found writing to be a great way to still "connect" to my brother... i write letters to him and have a blog where i share them along with memories and pictures and music that reminds me of him.  i've met some great new friends i'd never have met because of the blog-- grief causes a need to connect with others who "get it."  if anyone is interested in reading, it can be found here:  http://letterstobrianblog.wordpress.com/

    again, thank you for this article.  i think it is so important for people who haven't experienced a great loss to understand how it can continue to affect a person even many, many years later!

    8 weeks of anniversary grieving - Lisa Bogaard - May 28th 2013

    I lost my father on July 16, 2002, only 10 weeks after the birth of my first child. I adored my father with every ounce of my being. He was always in my thoughts throughout my day, my entire life. He pined for a granddaughter and I was finally able to give him one, and then he left this world. He was only able to enjoy her for 10 weeks. 

    It's been 11 years. It seems every year, I start feeling tired, out of sorts, depressed, anxious around my daughters birthday. I don't notice, I always think I am just PMS, then I get my period but I still feel the symptoms and get confused as to why. It takes a few days or weeks, and then it dawns on me that Dad's anniversary is coming. It's so odd that it happens every year, but I don't anticipate it happening. It just happens, and then I figure it out. This feeling plagues me until a couple days after the anniversary. Then I go back to being myself. Strange phenomenon!

    anniversary reaction and birth order - - Mar 18th 2013

    Is it true that when it comes to the death of a parent, the anniversary reaction is most likely to be experienced by the youngest child?

    Milestone Anniversaries - Hopi - Nov 9th 2012

    Can grief pain be exacerbated at benchmark years; 5th, 10th, 20th anniversaries?

    Thanks

    anniversary reaction - - Oct 22nd 2012

    Every year for seven years, that is how long it has been since my dad died.  I just feel this temendous amount of hurt on June tenth.  What is worse is I know the exact time it happened and when I got that call that altered my life forever.  I know logically in my head that he is dead but in my heart it is harder to accept.  When June tenth happens I just wish I could not have to acknowledge that day.  I have done therapy and medicine but that grief is there every year at the same time.  I think it is harder because it was so sudden and unexpected.  The odd thing is the song that goes through my head on this day and went through my head the weekend he died.  It is the Billy Joel song, Only the Good Die Young.  I don't know why that is but its there and to this day can't listen to this song.  I do have hope though that I will see him again when my time is up and I leave this earth forever.  The odd thing is that I have actually communicated with him in my dreams.

    where do I belong? - last left - Jul 17th 2010

    I lost my wife then, about 7 months later my youngest son and now 4 years later my last son. where do I belong?

    no support- how to cope - shell - Jan 4th 2010

    My dad passed away 2 1/2 yrs ago. He had been extremely abusive and our relationship was strained until a few years before his death. After his diagnosis of terminal cancer he became the perfect dad, but I only had him that way for 6 weeks until he died.

    In two days it would be his 57th birthday, and over the last week I've been a mess.I already suffer from depression, GAD and PTSD which I have had all types of therapy and meds for.

    I know I  need to grieve and feel the pain to get through it, but how do I do it when I have children to care for and a partner who tells me to just snap out of it? That I should be over it by now? I just want to run away from everyone and everything right now.

    There are so many conflicting emotions- the dad I am mourning was the one who created so much dysfunction in my life and i feel ripped off that i only had my 'great dad' for 6 weeks. I'm angry, Im sad- and it brings up all of my childhood trauma-but then I remember those 6 weeks. 

     I also just spent a week at his house in the country over christmas, and where he died which triggered alot of emotions and memories.

    Is it 'normal' for me to be feeling this way? Or am I looking for excuses to be miserable like my partner tells me I am?

    (I know I need to see my doc to talk this through but she is away on holidays atm).

    the 1st anniversary of her husband's death - - Feb 5th 2009

    Would you or any readers have any advice on how to support a close friend on the 1st anniversary of her husband's death?

    Death of my dad and severe depression - Beatrice - Sep 10th 2008

      My dad passed away a year ago January 17 08

      Is it normal for a depressive and a very emotional me to be crying a lot over my dads passing.

      I just can't stop crying and have had a major depression because of this.

      I can hardly talk about him and can't even look at a picture of my parents and the tears just start.

     My mother passed away 4 years ago January 4 2008.

     I have moved on about my mother and I don't think I will ever get over my dad's passing.

     We were very close and he was very protective of me because I was a sick  girl.

     He even told my brothers and sister what would happen to me when he was gone.

     Does anyone have any suggestions that would help me out.

    Thanks for reading this. 

    Editor's Note: It is quite normal, although very painful, to grieve the significant loss of a parent.  In this case, you were exceptionally close with your father, and he was your sole surviving parent, each of which accentuates the loss.  Grief , which is what most people call this sort of thing (it isn't quite depression, although it is depression's cousin), varies in duration for how long people stay upset and devistated.  Significant losses may remain devistating for several years for some people, while other people with different circumstances can get over significant loss faster.  There's no right or wrong about it - it just takes time to get through.  Talking about the loss with someone who can listen well and actively (such as a therapist) can be helpful.  Talking about the loss helps you to process the loss and put it into perspective so that it does not remain frozen in time and enshrined. We have an entire chapter of this website devoted to grief , how it works as a process to endure and ways to help yourself get past the pain which you may wish to read.  

    grief pain lasts - - Jun 25th 2008
    For a number fo years around this time of year ( the last qweek of June) I would have icnredible pain in my chest and invariably end up in emergency because of the severity of the symptoms. Nothing was ever wrong. One day I heard on the radio the phenomenon of anniversary pain...and then was reminded that my father died on the 26th June years now 35 years ago.   This year I forgot again and wodnered why I was so cranky and sad this week and tight in my chest and was reminded.... it was a great help to me to understand this reaction.

    my personal grief - Robert maldonado - Jun 6th 2008

    I had lost my fiancee in 2003.for five years I had felt dead even when I had friends around to guide me through it. I've been to treatment programs but they were no bargain. But I'm learning to talk about it, keep busy, and try to deal with it. Sometimes I get into my depressed mood. it's never easy losing a love one, but I got to accept that life goes on.

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