The scientific explanation for “anniversary reaction” is a common and normal event, caused by a reaction in the amygdala where the initial feelings of the trauma or loss are trigged by the anniversary, sometimes outside of the consciousness of the individual. The anniversary trigger can be different meaningful dates to the grieving individual such as holidays, birthdays, and the anniversary of the death of the loved one. Some people may experience an anniversary reaction when they reach the age of the loved one who died. This happens most frequently to those who had a parent die when they were children.
Even the most well-functioning person can become overwhelmed and stopped in his/her tracks due to an anniversary reaction. Emotional memory is not something that can be erased or forgotten. In fact, in her article, Dr. Lamia (a clinical psychologist) noted that she had a client who had experienced depression every June for 25 years after the death of her 12-year old child. For all those years the woman had tried to rid herself of these feelings thinking there was something wrong with her. Once Dr. Lamia was able to let the woman know that this was a normal reaction the woman was able to stay with her feelings and plan how she would honor the anniversary without ignoring the reaction. All those years of feeling there was something “wrong” with her!
Alright, that’s all the technical stuff about anniversary reaction. Now to the reality. I have just experienced another anniversary reaction. About two weeks ago I went through the 7th anniversary of my son’s fatal plane crash. I really thought this year it was different. I have been so busy with school and my internship that I didn’t think I was experiencing any extraordinary grief reactions and was feeling a little smug in my ability to “handle” it all this time.
Then I began feeling very tired and found it difficult to get motivated on my days off. I began to think I was coming down with some virus. Nope. One night while watching television I was hit in the head by a wave of grief. It is such a total, physical and emotional reaction that is hard to explain. It began with the mental thought of my son being out of my life and how much I have lost and also of all the life he has lost over the last seven years. Then it shook my entire body. I had to re-visit that raw emotion of the realization that he was gone, not just away, but gone. It didn’t last long but it was frightening because it was so unexpected.
It helps to know that this is common among grievers. I also realized in the first year of grief that I was not going to “get over” this loss and could only hope to move through it. I look back over the last 7 years and think they were the longest and shortest years of my life. So much has happened, so much has changed—but one thing has remained constant, my love and longing for my son. And that’s okay. It is my reality and so are the anniversary reactions that come when I least expect them.