Expect The Holidays To Re-Trigger The Grief Of Loss

Researchers refer to this phenomenon as "anniversary reactions."
James Peragine via Getty Images

Have you ever noticed that your mood changes in a similar way at a particular time of year for reasons you can’t quite pinpoint? Maybe you often feel slightly on edge or blue during the week of Thanksgiving, even though nothing bad has happened (yet). Or you tend to feel anxious, irritable or vaguely ill at ease when fall turns to winter, which happens to be when your parents split up or your best friend moved away. The truth is, particular holidays, months or even seasons can carry emotional baggage that you may not recognize.

Each of us has emotional hotspots in time that are “irreversibly tied to our past,” according to Dr. John Sharp, a psychiatrist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and the UCLA School of Medicine and author of “The Emotional Calendar.” “What’s happening is your mind is making sense of your experiences without your really thinking about it; it’s a form of pattern recognition.” In other words, it’s as if your subconscious is making a note to self, based on environmental factors or sensory conditions that trigger an association from the past.

Whether they’re obvious or hidden, these connections often involve memories of noteworthy events in our lives (such as moving to a new state or being in a horrible car accident or a frightening fire) or holiday-related family get-togethers. But they can also be tied to a particular loss (such as the death of a loved one or a devastating break-up or divorce) or to personal struggles (with finances or substance abuse, for example). “The emotions bleed across time from the past to the present,” Sharp explains.

Research refers to this phenomenon as “anniversary reactions,” “holiday effects” or “birthday blues” – and studies have found that the emotional impact is particularly strong for parents who have lost a child and for older, bereaved spouses. A 2015 study from Sweden found that mothers who lost a child had a 46 percent increased risk of dying, mostly from heart problems or suicide, during the anniversary week of the child’s death. A 2014 study from Rutgers University found that widowed older adults experienced heightened psychological distress during the post-holiday period, the month of their late spouse’s birthday and in June (when many wedding anniversaries and graduations occur). “When you lose someone, there is no such thing as closure – there’s a hole in the fabric and it’s never totally repaired,” says Ann Rosen Spector, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia.

Elizabeth Berrien is all too familiar with this phenomenon. The period from mid-to-late summer, the fall and early winter holidays, and late January are particularly tough for her. That’s because in August 2009 she became a young war widow when her husband Brian, a Special Forces soldier, was killed in action in Afghanistan, and in January 2008, they lost their son to stillbirth. “My grief usually intensifies around the fall and winter holidays, since that’s when more emphasis is placed on family-centered activities,” explains Berrien, now 34, co-founder of The Respite, a women’s wellness center in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the author of “Creative Grieving.” “It definitely magnifies the fact that loved ones are missing.”

This emotional rekindling can happen for several reasons, experts say. For one thing, your senses can stir up memories and certain emotions when you notice a chill in the air, the smell of chestnuts or a certain cast of light through the trees. For another, cultural expectations and family traditions can set the stage for old emotions to rise up. “All these patterns have probably intensified in recent years because of Facebook and social media because you see how everybody else celebrates these holidays,” notes Deborah Carr, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University. “Holidays used to be very private. Now people post the most positive experiences, which can make your experiences less pleasant by comparison.”

In 2001, Chester Goad, a university administrator in Crossville, Tennessee, lost his dad suddenly to a heart attack; his mom died of cancer five years later. “My birthday is around Thanksgiving, and my mom's was in December, so we would have birthday and holiday celebrations all during the Christmas season,” says Goad, now 43, who is married and has a teenage son. “This time of year can be stressful for me. I still feel the joy of the season, but at times it can be a solemn joy, and I vacillate between bouts with depression over the sense of loss and anxiety over wanting the holidays to be meaningful for my family.”

Becoming aware of this phenomenon and understanding why you may feel out of sorts allows you to do something about it. The first step is to figure out why you’ve experienced a sudden shift in mood if it’s not obvious. To do that, Sharp recommends imagining yourself as an actor on stage, then broadening the spotlight to see what’s around you in terms of past memories or events and present influences. “It’s not like deep Freudian archaeology – you just have to broaden the beam on yourself [to see what could be affecting you that isn’t immediately apparent],” Sharp says.

To do that, ask yourself: What smells, sounds or other environmental factors might be triggering these feelings? What cultural expectations may be fueling my angst or agitation? When have I felt similarly in the past? “Sometimes you don’t have an immediate answer,” Sharp says, “but a little while later something can pop into your head – a free association – that makes the connection.”

Once you know what you’re dealing with, it can help to tell yourself that the feelings you’re experiencing belong more in the past than the present. Besides helping to modify your reaction, “untangling those threads and recognizing that something has to do with the past can be enormously freeing,” Sharp says. Otherwise, it can help to label it as “poignancy – a mixture of good feelings and pain,” says Richard Tedeschi, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte, and to acknowledge that this “is part of the human experience, the price you pay for loving someone.”

Chester Goad finds that talking to family members and friends and telling stories about his parents is one of the best ways to cope with his sense of loss. “I’ve learned that it’s important to share memories and laugh while creating new memories,” he says.

But if you feel overwhelmed during a holiday get-together, have an exit strategy or a contingency plan so that you don’t feel trapped. You might excuse yourself to take a walk or a rest or to call an old friend. “Give yourself boundaries on the time [spent with others] to protect your mental health,” Tedeschi advises.

In the future, be aware that a relapse of an emotional hangover could occur, and take steps to head it off at the pass. “Figure out what it means to take extra good care of yourself and be proactive,” Sharp says. This might mean planning to go on a special outing to a favorite place, watching good movies or doing something else that boosts your spirits.

With the holiday- and anniversary-related surges in grief that Berrien experiences, “there’s often anxiety, and sometimes I become a bit more withdrawn, so I turn to meditation, deep breathing, exercise or massage to help me be in the present,” says Berrien, who is remarried and the mother of a 6-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old stepdaughter from her first marriage. “It’s often the simplest things, such as being out in nature, listening to my favorite music or reading a good book that help me cope and bring me to a place of comfort and peace.” Indeed, finding that personal spot of serenity may be the best cure for any seasonal or emotional hangover that ails you.

Emotional But Don't Know Why? Meet The Other Seasonal Affective Disorder was originally published on U.S. News & World Report.

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