Every day an anniversary

Much has been written about the “anniversary effect” and its relationship to grief and trauma survival. As much as death is a certainty, in a death phobic culture it’s reasonable to see how it could be considered traumatic. I see this regularly, even when the very elderly die. We are not prepared emotionally because we don’t even like to use the word death. We say the person “passed away.” Intellectually, we tell ourselves that we accept the inevitability of death, but that’s where we stop. It’s not our fault – we are, to a great degree, the products of our prevailing culture – but we must wrest with this emotional death phobia, I believe, if we are to grieve well, or even at all.

As January 5th approached this year, I started mentally preparing myself for the anniversary effect. Even with forethought, starting right before Christmas, I was hit hard. I was unprepared for the degree to which this fourth anniversary of her death would affect me emotionally. Her “deathday.” We don’t use that expression. Even I don’t. We say the “anniversary of her death.” So why not deathday, like birthday?

Now that it’s March, I can see some of the reasons this year was particularly difficult: I delayed my annual trip to be with the family on her deathday, it’s been a colder, snowier winter this year, I had a really miserable upper respiratory virus, 2017 brought substantial and stressful changes to my life, etc. These considerations have helped me weather the anniversary effect, and so has this thought: every day is an anniversary.

Quite literally, very few days in a year go by without some important recollection, seasonal memory, tradition, or commemoration of our lives together. More frequently, it’s the small, yet significant reminiscences that populate my every day life. Things like gifts she gave me, recipes, songs from our youth, art and poetry mutually loved, TV shows from decades past, cards and email correspondence, videos, photographs, clothing, and ephemera from half a century of living this amazing life in each others’ orbits.

At least once a week, or so, I say something like this to my husband, Eric:  “Today was the day Kissie and I went to…” or “Six years ago this month, we all got together for…” or “Every time I hear that music, I remember how she loved…” He listens, and usually remarks how ever-present our shared experiences remain, be they commonplace or extraordinary.  It’s no surprise, then, that our interwoven lives and the cultural and familial backdrop of the last fifty years, make it virtually impossible not to stop and recall – even if it’s just in the midst of a hectic afternoon –  some aspect of our pivotal relationship every single day.

Every day, an anniversary.

The Physical Demands of Grief

Grief is exhausting. It takes a huge amount of physical energy, in addition to the mental and emotional. As Ginger Sullivan, LPC and psychotherapist, so aptly blogged, “Grieving is a 24/7 job that places high demands on our whole self.”

My grief has left me bone tired, blurry, achy, and unable to concentrate. Then, I’ll experience a short recuperation, or even a burst of energy, after which a strong current of tiredness overtakes me again. I’m trying to accept the back and forth, and allow myself to go with it, instead of fighting it with a willfully imposed productivity that usually backfires anyway. 

Letting grief temporarily build-up – whether from the day-to-day demands of life, or unconsciously trying to push through it – has physical repercussions for me too. I’m like a pressure-cooker and I have to regularly let off the steam of sadness by giving myself over to the experience. I do this primarily through crying (alone, or with an understanding loved one or friend), talking about Chris, writing about her, and to her, and listening to, and making, music. Being able to distract myself from my grief allows me to function, but too much of a build-up exhausts me even more.

In his book “Better Than Blessed,” psychologist and minister Donald L. Anderson said, “Healthy are those who mourn. Only very recently have we begun to realize that to deny grief is to deny a natural human function and that such denial sometimes produces dire consequences. Grief, like any genuine emotion, is accompanied by certain physical changes and the release of a form of psychic energy.”

My stress response is also compromised. I don’t have my normal “bounce back” from situations that really aren’t that big of a deal. I find that I need to consciously remind myself that these minor melt-downs are a signal that I need to retreat for a bit to release and/or renew my physical energies along with my emotional ones. I’ve never felt to this degree how physically demanding vulnerability can be, and that there must be recuperation from that emotional expenditure. Is it any wonder that embracing our experience of grief is unpopular?

Some things that are recuperative and energizing to me (though I struggle with consistency) are extra sleep, quiet time (especially in the morning and at night), gentle exercise like walking and yoga, eating nutritious foods and drinking extra water, practicing guitar and writing music, and talking honestly with those who are recently bereaved or experienced in attending to their own grief. And of course, talking about Kissie and her influence in my life, and hearing others’ stories of her influence in theirs, is deeply restorative.