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Grief: Coping with reminders after a loss


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Grief: Coping with reminders after a loss

When you lose someone close, your grief doesn't just magically end. Reminders often bring back the pain of loss, even years later. Here's how to cope and heal.


When a loved one dies, you may be faced with grief over your loss again and again, sometimes even years later. Feelings of grief may return annually on the anniversary of your loved one's death and on special days throughout the year, such as a birthday or religious holiday. Even memorial celebrations for strangers who died in catastrophes, conflicts or disasters can trigger the familiar pain and sadness of your own loss.

The return of these feelings of grief isn't necessarily a setback in the grieving process. It's a reflection that the lives of others were important to you and that you grieve their loss and still miss them. Learning more about what to expect and how to cope with reminders of your loss can help make the grieving process a healthy, healing one.

What to expect when grief returns

The memories and emotions of a lost loved one that are reawakened through reminders are often called anniversary reactions. These reactions, which can last for days or weeks at a time, can raise a host of emotions and physical problems similar to the ones you faced when you were first bereaved, including:






Lack of interest in activities

Crying spells

Replaying images in your mind related to your loved one

Trouble eating

Sleeping problems


Stomach upset

Anniversary reactions can also evoke powerful emotional memories — experiences in which you vividly recall the feelings and events surrounding your loved one's death. You might remember in great detail where you were and what you were doing, for instance, when your loved one died.

Common triggers of grief — a year of 'firsts'

Some reminders of your loved one are almost inevitable, especially during the first year after a death. That's when you'll face a lot of "firsts" — those first special days that'll pass without your loved one. As the weeks and months go by, you may also face other significant days or celebrations without your loved one that can trigger your grief again. Some of these "firsts" and other special occasions that can reawaken your grief include:

The first holiday

Mother's Day, Father's Day or another day you would have honored your loved one

Weddings and wedding anniversaries

Family reunions

Childhood milestones, such as the first day of school, prom, homecoming and other child-oriented days

Anniversaries of special days — when you met, when you became engaged, when you last saw your loved one alive, when you took a big trip together

Your reactions to these firsts and special occasions might be intense initially. But as the years pass, you'll probably find it easier to cope — but not forget.

Reminders can be anywhere, and unexpected

Reminders aren't just tied to the calendar, though. They can be anywhere — in sights, sounds and smells, in the news or on television programs. And they can ambush you, suddenly flooding you with emotions when you drive by the restaurant your wife loved or when you hear a song your son liked so much. Another death, even that of a stranger, can leave you reliving your own grief.

Even years after a loss, you may continue to feel sadness and pain when you're confronted with such reminders. Although some people may tell you that grieving should last a year or less, grieve at your own pace — not on someone else's expected timeline.

Tips to cope with reawakened grief

Time itself can lessen the intensity of your grief. You can also take measures to cope with anniversaries, special days and other reminders of your loss so that you can continue the healing process, including:

Be reassured. Remember that anniversary reactions are common and normal and that the pain fades as the years pass — although it may never go away completely.

Prepare for episodes of grief. Knowing that you're likely to experience anniversary reactions can help you understand them and even turn them into opportunities for healing.

Look for healing opportunities. You might find yourself dreading upcoming special days, fearful of being overwhelmed by painful memories and emotions. In some cases, the anticipation can be worse than the reality. In fact, you may find that you work through some of your grief as you cope with the stress and anxiety of approaching reminders.

Reminisce about the relationship you had with the person who died. Try to focus on the good things about the relationship and the time you had together, rather than the loss.

Plan a distraction. Take a weekend away or plan a visit with friends or relatives.

Start a new tradition in your loved one's memory. For example, make a donation to a charitable organization in the person's name on birthdays or holidays, or plant a tree in honor of your loved one.

Tune out. Limit your exposure to news reports about tragic events if you become more anxious, sad or distressed.

Connect with others. Draw family members and friends close to you, rather than avoiding them. Find someone who encourages you to talk about your loss. Stay connected to your usual support systems, such as spiritual leaders and social groups. Consider joining a bereavement support group.

Allow yourself to feel sadness and a sense of loss. But also allow yourself to experience joy and happiness as you celebrate special times. In fact, you might find yourself both laughing and crying.

Attend a memorial. You may find it healing to attend a public memorial service or ceremony that marks the anniversary of tragedies, disasters and other events that claimed lives. These kinds of ceremonies can help draw people together and allow you to share experiences with others who feel similarly.

When grief becomes overly intense or painful

Normal grief symptoms gradually start to fade within six months or so. In some cases, though, your grief experience may be much more complicated, painful and debilitating. Or your grief may get worse over time instead of better, or it may last for years.

In these cases, you may no longer be simply grieving. Your grief may have progressed into a medical disorder, such as:


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Complicated grief

If your grief interferes with your ability to function in your daily life, see your doctor, primary care provider or mental health provider for evaluation and possible treatment.

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