The anniversary grief reaction

Wreath by Glen Fleishman, 

I was in my hometown last week. I went, in part, for a haircut. If you don’t notice the difference, I won’t take offense. It’s been the same haircut from the same barbers for years. Barry and Mike do the best that they can for me, given that their license from the Commonwealth doesn’t allow C-4. I checked.

They are also brothers, and the running commentary between two brothers who work together is worth the price of admission. They used to cut my father’s hair, too, so when he died, I came in with his picture on my phone to let them know why they would not see him anymore, that he did not simply disappear. My brother was nearly bald by 25 so he cut what remained of his own hair for most of his life.

Mike, one of the barbers, and I graduated from neighboring high schools in the same year. We traded a hard look when we put that together a few years ago. It was something like, “Is that how I look now?” I thought, “Yes, I have a belly, but I have hair, so don’t start with me.” It’s a barbershop, not a salon – straight razors and buzzy Wahl clippers and Channel 10 news on the television and oh, the heartbreak when Sheena Parveen moved to Washington.

Last week, after my haircut, I went to the cemetery where my father and brother are buried. I’d had a real wreath on my office door and it was drying out, would be no good at all when I returned to work, but in the cold and wet of the winter, the wreath might last a few more weeks. On this last day of work for 2018, I moved my wreath from work to their grave and found that my mother had already put one there. I haven’t told her what I did but she is sure to notice it when she visits again, probably soon, and she will be surprised and happy.

As the sun set, I drove by my old house, the place where my family lived for about 30 years. I was disappointed that there were no Christmas decorations up but maybe the new owners don’t celebrate Christmas. I was glad to see the trees that my father and I planted and the fence that we put alongside the driveway were still there. I hope that the new owners are happy and have made it a home.

If you are familiar with the Five Stages of Grief (Kubler-Ross, 1969) then you might read this and conclude that I have not yet reached the Acceptance stage in regard to the death of my brother, Tim (2012) or my father, Matthew (2013), or when my mother sold the house (2015). The root of the common misunderstanding is that the five stages describe the typical reactions of patients to the news of a terminal diagnosis and were never meant to predict reactions to deaths in your family or to the sale of a longtime home or any of the other losses that happen in a lifetime. The gift of the stages is the permission to talk about loss and the words to do it, but the stages can also confuse us.

I respect what Dr. Kubler-Ross gave us, and I respect anyone who is doing any kind of grief work. In general, I prefer the dual process model (Stroebe and Schut, 1999) and it fits another part of grief, something that you might be experiencing during the holiday, something completely normal. It’s called the anniversary reaction.

Much of the literature on the anniversary reaction pertains to traumatic events. I can’t back up my next statement with research but I will suggest that experiencing the death of a loved one or other losses, though lacking the danger and fear of a narrowly-defined traumatic event, nevertheless resembles a trauma. It can be shocking and scary, and some of the reactions, like avoiding the reminders of the loss, intrusive thoughts, and changes in mood and thoughts, are similar across trauma and bereavement. I’m not qualified to say that PTSD and bereavement are the same thing, but I can suggest that they share some qualities.

The point, though, is that we naturally keep track of anniversaries, both good and bad. If the holiday is a time when you gathered with your family then it will be the anniversary of a sharp and direct encounter with the loss. You don’t have to feel it and think it again, but if you do, that makes sense.

My suggestions, then, are:

(1) Expect to remember the loss, so that it doesn’t swamp you, so that you can decide when and where you will encounter those reminders, if at all.

(2) Realize that it will pass. The holidays last for a few weeks, at most.

(3) Don’t get hung up on the idea that you have somehow not reached Acceptance, just because you are visiting a grave or driving by a landmark from a previous incarnation of your life.

(4) Be honest and concise about what you want and need, with yourself and those around you. There is no need to explain, nothing wrong with avoiding or approaching.

Here is where I can offer something from the dual process model of grief. The two ways that we make peace with a loss and build our lives anew are through the varying processes of approaching and avoiding reminders of the loss. Visiting a grave is an example of approaching. Taking a different road out of town so that you don’t pass the cemetery is an example of avoiding.

Both are right and both make sense, depending on what works for you, and you may cope in one way this time and the other way the next time. These processes can lead to some nasty, ugly conflicts if one person needs to approach when another needs to avoid. We can prevent these conflicts by being honest and clear about what we want and need.

In the end, it’s normal to think about a missing loved one at the holiday, to drive by your old house at a time when you used to gather with family there, to approach and avoid at will. There’s nothing wrong with any of it. No matter what happens, please be gentle with yourself and those around you.


Chow, A. Y. M. (2010). Anticipatory anniversary effects and bereavement: Development of an integrated explanatory model. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 15(1), 54–68.

Kubler-Ross (1969). On death and dying. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Stroebe, M., & Schut, H. (1999). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: Rationale and description. Death Studies, 23, 197–224.