Anyone who has experienced a loss or trauma knows what I am talking about when I say that the anniversaries — whether that’s the actual date of the event, a birthday of someone you lost, or a holiday — are hard. We can be subject to visceral triggers — the change of the seasons, the position of the sun in the sky, the clothes we are wearing at that time of year; all of it works on our psyches and can bring surges of grief, sadness, anxiety, depression, anger, fear, or helplessness. That’s true whether the loss happened last year or ten years ago; our minds and bodies remember.
While it feels terrible to be triggered, it’s a normal reaction to a catastrophic event and so it’s something we may be able to anticipate. Anticipating our grief triggers can help us put things into place that ease our experience ever-so-slightly or at least make us feel a tiny bit more in control. I often liken it to having the emotional flu; you know you will feel weak, vulnerable, and lousy so nurture yourself in much the same way as you do if the regular flu strikes. Here are some ways to care for yourself during a trigger time:
- If it’s a certain date or time that you know you will be triggered, carefully plan what you’ll do that day. Some people prefer to be really busy and maintain their status quo; others feel better if they take the day off and get out of their routine. Some people want to do anything but talk about their loss; others want to take the day to re-tell and remember. This isn’t anyone else’s grief experience. Only you can say what makes you feel better.
- Choose your company wisely. Often clients will tell me that they don’t want to be with anyone at all but when it comes down to it, being alone can sometimes make things worse. Finding a close ally — perhaps someone who experienced loss, too — can be a helpful touchstone to keep you from feeling devastatingly alone. However, if you choose to spend your day with others, make sure there aren’t drama queens or narcissists in the bunch. There’s not much more infuriating than someone who’s competing with loss for the spotlight.
- Much like when you have the flu or any other illness, plan what you eat and drink. In your case, you don’t need Sprite and saltines but you do need to make sure you get adequate nutrition, stay hydrated, and have a very easy default plan in place for getting nourished that day. Perhaps you order from your favorite take-out or the day before you make a beautiful salad that you can grab on your anniversary day. Make it easy that day to do the right thing and take care of yourself.
- Plan your escape. Even a day consumed by grief can be too much and too overwhelming. Sometimes you have to practice forgetting with the aid of diversionary tactics like TV or a stack of good books. In advance of your trigger day, buy a special book, rent a movie you’ve always wanted to see, or plan to knock out all of the old shows you’ve DVRd.
- Honor the person you lost or the person you’ve become since the traumatic event. Some families gather to have dinner or do something special to honor a loved one. Some trauma survivors take the day to do something special for themselves. Whatever you do, take time to recognize the positive things that not even trauma can take away.
Taking time to plan out some ways to handle your trigger days can help to ease the pain a little bit. If you have a suggestion for something else that has helped you and may help others, please chime in.