When an Anniversary of Your Loved One’s Death Approaches

by James E. Miller

In one of his poems Henry Wadsworth Longfellow refers to certain poignant memories in this way:

    Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;

    The secret anniversaries of the heart.

You may understand his sentiment as an important anniversary of your loved one’s death approaches.

An “anniversary reaction” sometimes occurs. It’s that grief response that is triggered by a date or an event which reactivates the remembered experience of the death itself. This reaction may be felt in all parts of one’s self: heart, mind, body, and soul. Memories are heightened. Feelings may be intensified. If it’s the first anniversary of your loved one’s death, for example, it may seem as if you’re re-experiencing in vivid detail all you went through on those same days twelve months before. Your grief may be temporarily but strikingly reawakened.

Most people respond only mildly or moderately to such an anniversary, while a few have a much stronger response. Feelings commonly include sharpened sadness, tiredness, jitteriness or anxiety, irritability or anger, sometimes guilt. You may experience headaches, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances or unusual dreams. Some people have flashbacks.

All these responses are quite usual. They are confirming signs of how important your relationship has been and how significantly this loss has affected your life.

You can deal effectively with any anniversary reaction in several ways. Allow any of your feelings to flow through you, rather than expend all that extra energy holding off your feelings—that will only add to your stress. Talk or write about what’s happening to you during these days. Plan a ritual or a commemoration, even if it’s quite small or informal, as a way to honor your loved one. Make time to reflect on the changes that have occurred, on how you’ve grown, and on how you might still grow.

These anniversaries of the heart, which sometimes include birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and specific holidays as well, create opportunities for you to include others in your act of remembering, if you wish. These times can help you gain personal perspective about your courage, your stamina, and your resourcefulness, not to mention your love. Mostly, you can honor the one who is dear to you while simultaneously encouraging your continued healing.


What You Can Do to Commemorate an Anniversary


Host a celebration of your loved one’s life for family and friends. Speak memories. Read poems. Sing songs. Dance a dance. Listen again to the eulogy. Light candles. Release balloons. Share a meal. Smile a lot.

Create a physical reminder of this day. Plant a flower or tree and put a nameplate nearby. Place a memorial stone or bench in a garden or park. Install an ornate birdhouse, a fountain, or a work of art.

Do something for others in memory of your loved one. Donate to a charity or a social cause they believed in. Perform an act of altruism they once performed or would have liked to perform now.


    This writing is by James E. Miller and taken from the fifth issue of Willowgreen’s newsletter for grieving individuals, Grief’s Healing Journey.  Organizations may send the print version of this seven-issue newsletter over the course of thirteen months to individuals and families in their care. They may choose alternatively to send subscriptions to the electronic version for the same time period. For additional information, click here.