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Anniversary Reactions

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

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.

Keep Reading By Author Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
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