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How to Cope with the Anniversary of a Loss

April 1, 2022

The anniversary of the death of a loved one can be hard. But what many people don’t expect, as they head toward the date, is that for some the run-up to the anniversary can be even harder.

“People know the actual anniversary of the death is going to be really hard,” says Sairey Luterman, a Lexington-based grief counsellor, “And that may well be true, but oftentimes, for a lot of reasons, it’s the lead-up that is really brutalizing. People just don’t see that coming.”

In the event that the death was sudden, or tragic, survivors might obsessively revisit the specific events that led up to that day. “It’s kind of a traumatic reliving of whatever happened,” says Luterman. “Like, on October 11th, Dad and I were playing bridge with some friends. And then there was the trip to the hospital, and the day the biopsy results came back.” This happens naturally to people who are struggling to process or understand a particularly painful loss. We go back in time, and relive the experience to try to make sense of it. And in doing so, we feel all the things we felt that first time. “That takes people by surprise,” says Luterman. “All of that stuff comes rushing back.”

That said, the experience leading up to an anniversary of a death that was less traumatic—a person who lived a full life and died at a ripe age—will likely lead to less obsessive reliving of the days leading up to the loss. That’s not to say people won’t mourn the absence of that loved one, or won’t still feel sad. It’s just that because the loss is more comprehensible, the anniversary might be less painful and disorienting.

In either case, Luterman says, the key to getting through anniversaries is the same as the key to grieving. Mark the day by lighting a candle, or cooking the deceased’s favorite meal, or gathering family and friends for a dinner, or to pray together, or any comforting ritual that allows you to face the loss with people you love. And take it easy on yourself, Luterman says—which is easier said than done.

“People always say to me, “How do I push through?” The lever is always push. And what I suggest is really that the lever isn’t “push” at all. It’s be kind to yourself, ease up on things, up the self-care regimen, spend time with people that are comforting,” she says. “If you can, lighten your workload some. Make sure that you’re getting your water, you’re eating, you’re sleeping, getting a little bit of exercise, you know, that you’re, that you’re caring for yourself pretty attentively. And, but really the biggest piece of advice. Be gentle with yourself.”

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