Five Ways to Get Over Anniversary Trauma
It’s funny how the trauma of the anniversary creeps up on a person. November 30 marked the one year anniversary of the earthquake in Eagle River, Alaska. I am currently recovering from a car accident, so while at the table with my masseuse, I found myself extremely tense. There is a difference between muscle spasms due to injury and muscles that contract from tension. I had a lot of the first one, but this time I had tension all over my body.
I knew my lower back had been particularly sore, but that day, the therapist couldn’t get anywhere near it. Suddenly, he hit me. Anniversary trauma. I consider the 2018 Alaska earthquake one of the few truly terrifying moments in my life. It was like being chased by a mad dog. Except that the mad dog was taking over the entire Anchorage area and had me in its teeth. I honestly thought death was a distinct possibility for about 90 seconds, an eternity when you contemplate, well, eternity.
I know how powerful anniversary trauma can be, having watched my husband struggle our first Christmas together. ten years before he he had spent all Christmas trying to cheer up his brother. The next day his brother died by suicide. Ten Christmases came and went with him, being able to enjoy only part of the celebration of the birth of Jesus with his children. Thank God for the healing prayer.
I consider that time in prayer with him, those first vacations together, one of the most profound miracles I have ever witnessed. As Spencer welcomed Jesus to this tragic anniversary, a golden light filled our room. I have no explanation of how it happened. Our windows were closed. But since then, Christmas increased in joy for all of us in our blended family.
So, having an anniversary trauma myself (and it’s in the DSM and now it’s listed under PTSD symptoms), I’ve discovered a few things that help. If you are skeptical that such a thing exists, then you should be aware that your subconscious and your body keep accurate records of the trauma. You may not remember the date of that horrible breakup, layoff, or death of a loved one, but your sympathetic nervous system has already put that date on your biological clock. Trust me, it’s already getting ready.
1: Know Your Timeline For Anniversary Trauma
We rarely want to make a timeline of our problems. It seems counterproductive at first. But trust me. If we know our own history, we can begin to make changes to our future. Many of us simply live from one day to the next, surviving as best we can. You would not trust your money or your physical health to chance. Why risk your mental health and emotional well-being?
Forewarned is prepared, as the old cliché goes. If we know each and every trauma anniversaries, then we can prepare ourselves, prepare others, and hopefully weather the worst of the damage. Otherwise, we will be upset and easily provoked, annoying and provoking those around us. We can’t fully prepare for how we’re going to feel, but any preparation is preferable to having a terrible, horrible, bad, bad day come upon us without warning.
2: Prepare ahead of time for anniversary trauma
Sometimes when life gets crowded, I look for easy solutions. I tend to have a go big or go home mentality when it comes to vacations, so for me, I need to give myself easy outs. If I had really thought about the anniversary of the earthquake, I would have brought some ibuprofen to work. Ironically, pain relievers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen help ease emotional pain. The brain does not differentiate between emotional pain and physical pain. (I think this is part of what’s behind the opioid crisis. All the physical and emotional pain disappeared…) I could have canceled some appointments that seemed overwhelming. Booking the massage was accidental…and a godsend.
If you know the anniversary of the death of a loved one is coming up, do what feels right to you. Get prepared food. Leave the clothes. Intentionally let go of stressors in your life if possible. Get a babysitter or my favorite: go to the movies. Movies are two hours of pure escapism for me. But my basic suggestion is margin. Give yourself some leeway if possible.
3: Call your people
This is a good time to be with your close friends, the ones who don’t mind listening to your process. I have a few people like that and I’m so thankful for them. We all need someone in our life to whom we can tell the same damn story over and over without shame. I’m not talking about socializing. I’m talking about those friends who tell you if the clothes you’ve just tried on seem ridiculous out of a genuine desire to look good. I’m talking about the friend you can hang out with without saying a word if you don’t want to.
I cannot sing the praises of having people in your life who love you unconditionally. In fact, sometimes the loving support we receive from those true friends can heal the trauma of the anniversary. While we never forget, our memories can lose their power to hurt us. Being loved is just one of the ways it can happen.
4: Create a Ritual or Ceremony
I love that my daughter-in-law has specific ways of mourning the death of her mother. And quite a few organizations, including the APA and Veterans Affairs, suggest just that. Creating a tradition that honors and mourns our losses can be very healing. If we can make a friend of our pain, instead of repressing or avoiding it, we move towards wholeness. A beloved ritual or a small ceremony helps us to follow the arc of our emotions safely. Honoring our feelings is the fastest way to recover from them.
Studies show that simply acknowledging an emotion starts the process of dissipating it. If we are angry, admitting that we are angry actually dispels it. The same with sadness and emotional pain. So instead of avoiding emotions, accept them for what they are, reminders that you are human and that you live in a fallen world. Loved ones deserve our pain and we deserve to feel safe even when we are sad.
5: Invite Jesus to your Anniversary Trauma
Recently, a troubled young woman threw herself in front of my car. I was so disturbed for a few days. But in a time of quiet prayer, I invited Jesus into that memory. She could feel his compassion for that woman. I could see him between her body and my car, wishing I would keep my eyes on him. Even though I knew it wasn’t my fault, he reminded me. He reminded me that he was there. So many factors intervened at that time. If he had been in our truck, if there was ice on the road, and if he hadn’t been a slow driver… all of this would prevent him from dying. Miraculously, only a few bones were broken.
My point is that Jesus is present in all of our tragedies. Sometimes we are tempted to blame him for not preventing those events, even when we act out of our free will every day. But if we really listen to it, invite it in, we get new perspectives. I still see the anguished face of that poor lady. But I also see there the face of Jesus loving me and loving her.
And that’s really what I mean. Jesus is loving you right now. Outside of time, He is also loving you. We no longer have to be overcome by bad events in our lives. With Him, we can overcome evil with good.