Grief: Coping with reminders after a loss

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Grief: Coping with reminders after a loss

When a loved one dies, you may be faced with grief over your loss again and again — sometimes even years later. Feelings of grief may return on the anniversary of your loved one's death, for example, or on your loved one's birthday or other special days throughout the year. The return of these feelings, sometimes called an anniversary reaction, isn't necessarily a setback in the grieving process. It's a reflection that your loved one's life was important to you. To continue on the path toward healing, know what to expect — and how to cope with reminders of your loss.

Reminders can be anywhere

Certain reminders of your loved one may be inevitable, especially on holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and other special days that follow your loved one's death. Reminders aren't just tied to the calendar, though. They can be in sights, sounds and smells all around you — and they can ambush you, suddenly flooding you with emotions when you drive by the restaurant your wife loved or when you hear a song your son liked so much. Even memorial celebrations for others can trigger the familiar pain and sadness of your own loss.

What to expect when grief returns

Anniversary reactions can last for days or weeks at a time, often causing:

  • Sadness, loneliness and crying spells
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of interest in usual activities
  • Trouble eating and sleeping, including stomach upset and nightmares

Anniversary reactions can also evoke powerful emotional memories — experiences in which you vividly recall the feelings and events surrounding your loved one's death. For example, you might remember in great detail where you were and what you were doing when your loved one died.

Tips to cope with reawakened grief

Even years after a loss, you may continue to feel sadness and pain when you're confronted with reminders of your loved one's death. As you continue healing, take special steps to cope with reminders of your loss:

  • Be prepared. Anniversary reactions are normal. Knowing that you're likely to experience anniversary reactions can help you understand them and even turn them into opportunities for healing. For example, you might find yourself dreading an upcoming special day, fearful of being overwhelmed by painful memories and emotions — only to find that you work through some of your grief as you cope with the stress and anxiety of the approaching reminder.
  • Plan a distraction. Schedule a gathering or a visit with friends or loved ones during times when you're likely to feel alone or be reminded of your loved one's death.
  • Reminisce about the relationship you had with the person who died. Focus on the good things about your relationship and the time you had together, rather than the loss.
  • Start a new tradition in your loved one's memory. For example, make a donation to a charitable organization in your loved one's name on birthdays or holidays, or plant a tree in honor of your loved one.
  • Connect with others. Draw friends and loved ones close to you, including people who were special to your loved one. Find someone who'll encourage you to talk about your loss. Stay connected to your usual support systems, such as spiritual leaders and social groups. Consider joining a bereavement support group.
  • Allow yourself to feel a range of emotions. It's OK to be sad and feel a sense of loss, but also allow yourself to experience joy and happiness. As you celebrate special times, you might find yourself both laughing and crying.

When grief becomes overly intense

There's no time limit for grief, and anniversary reactions can leave you reeling. Still, the intensity of grief tends to lessen with time. If your grief gets worse over time instead of better or interferes with your ability to function in daily life, consult a grief counselor or other mental health provider. Unresolved or complicated grief can lead to depression and other mental health problems. With professional help, however, you can re-establish a sense of control and direction in your life — and return to the path toward healing.

Last Updated: 2010-09-09
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