Many anniversaries mark the happy moments in our lives, but many also mark the sad or frightening. On the three year anniversary of Sandy Hook it seems important to think about anniversaries. Life happens in cycles and on anniversaries we cycle back to the event—the loss—the fear—the experience. We see it in hindsight, we see at as we saw it, we see ourselves then and we see ourselves now. Whether the anniversary is of a trauma, like the Marathon Bombing, or 9/11, the Moore tornado, Sandy Hook, or the death of a loved one—anniversaries are important for our healing and our growth. They help us integrate what was lost, what was found, and where we are headed. But there needs to be attention paid to the ‘how’ of anniversaries. You can’t just live in the old story—and thanks to a 24 hour media cycle—this is a dangerous possibility. To just live in the traumatic event or loss is to be re-traumatized for a day. Anniversaries need more than just re-living the event or the loss, they need five aspects to create the ground for healing and growth. These five tasks are: Creating a Caring Environment, Honoring the Experience, Mourning What was Lost, Acknowledgment for What was Found, Envisioning the Future.
Creating a Caring Environment: People always forget that emotional work requires preparation. Anniversaries are tough days. You need to be extra kind to yourself on these days and make sure that you have more resources available to yourself than usual: more sleep, good food, lowered stress (perhaps fewer appointments or commitments if possible). You need to over-support yourself if you can—let loved ones know you need more support, have a friend ‘on-call,’ do those things that lower your stress: go for a walk, play with your kids, dog or cat, meditate, listen to music. Bring a picture to put on your desk at work, or have on your phone. The tasks of healing and growing through an anniversary will require a lot of you. It is important to create an environment where you feel supported through this day and this work.
Honoring the Experience: The first task is to honor what was experienced. What happened? What is the narrative of the event? What was I thinking? Feeling? Doing? Who was with me? Ideally you could honor your experience in a conversation with someone else, or with others to have your story witnessed and witness others. Do what you can to let others know that this is an anniversary for you. Let others help you honor it too. Be kind to yourself as you remember the story and tell the story. Trauma and loss can make us feel helpless and helplessness can make us feel shame. Honoring your story and your experience can be healing, but you need to be kind to yourself –knowing that in surviving you did the best you could.
Mourning What was Lost: Grieving is an intermittent experience. It can come and it can go. It is like the weather—one minute calm, the next minute a gale force wind. Anniversaries heighten this experience because it creates its own schedule of mourning. It brings us back to the loss and we are caught again in the storm of the experience. Mourning helps us see what happened, what we lost. But mourning is often bigger than the loss we can initially see. Mourning can be about what did happen, but it can also be about what didn’t happen—the things that couldn’t happen because of the loss or traumatic event. Allow yourself to acknowledge these things and hold them close to your heart—rock them inside you like an inconsolable infant. Everyone has their own rhythm and pace of mourning. Trust yours.
Acknowledgement for What was Found: This is what makes trauma so complicated. Just when you want to completely hate something in your life or your experience, you find something as well. Sometimes it is small, and sometimes it is large—but there is always something new in the experience of surviving a trauma or a loss. You come to know yourself or your community differently. You learn about a capacity you didn’t know you had. You grow bigger than you were. Your heart can hold more than you thought. What do you know about yourself that you didn’t know before? What do you see in your life that you didn’t see before? What might you even be grateful for now after having come through this experience? How has this changed over time?
Envision the Future. Anniversaries are focused on the past—but just the fact that the year has gone by is the proof that time marches forward. What are your hopes for the future? How do you want to honor the past in the next year? How can you bring the wisdom of what you have learned through this difficult experience to benefit your life and the lives of others? What do you still need to do to support your healing and growth?
I’d love to hear what supports you in healing and growing through your anniversaries.
© 2015 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD