Unhappy Anniversary?

By Jeff Levy

While meeting with one of my clients this week, we came upon the realization that her husband had died three years ago almost to the day.  This wasn’t how we began our conversation.  When we settled into our respective chairs, she started the session by sharing a general sense of sadness and she wasn’t sure where it was coming from.

That’s not the first time I’ve had an experience like that.  There have been other times over the years when someone will share feelings of sadness or grief and there is not anything in particular to which they can be attached.  For some of us, these feelings might be part of a larger history of depression.  At other times, however, we may have a dim or unconscious awareness that our distress is attached to something, but we can’t identify the exact source.

Anniversary of a Job Loss

When Sean lost his job, it came as a shock.  He had no warning and no history of documented performance problems.  He came to work one day, as he did any other day, and was called into his supervisor’s office and told that he was being terminated.  That day was to be his last.  He was escorted back to his office while a manager of human resources watched while he packed his belongings and was escorted out of the building.

Sean had been in therapy with me prior to losing his job, but the loss of his job resonated with a number of other losses in his life.  He was a survivor of sexual abuse and felt betrayed by his mother, in particular, for not believing his reports of abuse.  Losing this job felt like another betrayal, since he thought his supervisor both respected and valued his work.  Having no explanation or reason for his termination caused him to question his sense of reality, much like he did when he disclosed abuse to his mother.

In therapy, Sean and I spent a great deal of time looking at the extent to which he internalized the experience of abuse and the loss of his job, assuming he was “defective” in some way, and if he was more valuable and competent as a person, neither of these traumas would have occurred.  Eventually, Sean was able to acknowledge that he had no control over either the abuse or his termination.  While he may have done something that caused the termination, having no ability to discuss it or change his behavior was not his fault.

When Sean came to a session approximately one year after the loss of his job, he was almost despondent.  He said he felt “worthless and ashamed.”  He said he’d never be able to find a job he liked as much as the one he lost, and also said he didn’t think he could trust people in general—especially those in authority.  Sean was explicit in sharing that the anniversary of his employment termination was bringing up “all of these old feelings.”

Anniversary of an Unexpected Death

Zack:  Zack was away at college when his father died of an unexpected heart attack.  While his father’s health was never great, he’d not had any reported cardiac disease, so having a fatal heart attack came as a surprise to him and to his siblings.  He came home from college for the wake and funeral, but returned quickly to school to finish his senior year.

Zack started seeing me for therapy almost twenty years after his father’s death.  He sought therapy for reasons unrelated to the loss.  I learned of the death during our first few sessions when I asked questions related to his family’s history.  Other than those few sessions, his relationship with his father and his father’s death rarely came up in our work together.

Instead, Zack’s focus was on self-esteem and body image.  He reported being an overweight child who was teased mercilessly about his weight.  He said he’d grown significantly in high school and lost a significant amount of weight.  As an adult, Zack was over six feet and his weight was proportionate to his height.  Looking at him in the present, I saw no evidence of weight problems.  Still, he saw himself as “fat and unlovable.”

I saw Zack for just over four years and he made great progress around self-esteem and body image.  While he still had some trouble accepting compliments from others about his appearance, he was better able to reconcile how others saw him and how he saw himself.  While still in therapy, he met a woman to whom he became engaged.  Therapy ended just months prior to the wedding.

In the four years that Zack saw me in therapy, he had a palpable downward shift in his mood each year around the time of his father’s death.  He felt a need to return home to St. Louis to see his mother (who had never remarried) and to call each of his siblings on the anniversary date of his father’s death.  He’d return to Chicago with what he described as an “emotional hangover” that would last for almost a week.

Jason:  Jason had a very difficult and acrimonious divorce with his wife after 30 years of marriage.  Despite the divorce, Jason had a desire to have some type of friendship with his wife, though she declined to accept any of his invitations to get together.  Unbeknownst to Jason, his ex-wife became ill with cancer and he didn’t find out she had died until almost a year later.  In therapy we talked about the idea of him creating a second funeral for her where he would invite some of his friends.  They went to the cemetery on the second anniversary of her death. Jason shared memories of his ex-wife, said a prayer, and invited friends to speak.  While he experienced some sadness in subsequent years on the anniversary of her death, the ritual he created provided some closure for him.

Anniversary of an Illness

I had a similar kind of experience every August for about 10 years.  When I was 25 years old, I found myself in the hospital for three weeks as the result of an unexpected but life-threatening illness.  My parents and older brother came from several states away as there was some concern about my recovery.

Luckily, I was able to return home, though I had residual effects for approximately six months.  I continue to remember that experience despite it being 30 years ago.  For those first 10 years, each August I noticed I was a little more agitated and anxious.  It’s only now that I’m able to see that those feelings coincided with my hospitalization and subsequent recovery period.

Rituals and Unhappy Anniversaries

We like to think of anniversaries as happy occasions.  We typically remember these and  even have celebrations to acknowledge them; our happy wedding anniversaries; birthdays, and length of time at a job to name just a few. We have parties, invite others to help us celebrate, and acknowledge these happy occasions with a ritual.

Anniversaries that have some type of pain or loss attached to them are more complicated.  Some of us remember them and try to actively avoid any kind of acknowledgment.  Despite trying not to remember them, or perhaps even forgetting them after a long period of time, we find ourselves having unexpected reactions at certain times of the year.  We feel inexplicably sad, on edge, tired, or even angry.

There is, of course, no right way to acknowledge an anniversary reaction that has pain or sadness attached to it.  It’s possible though, that creating some type of ritual, akin to those we have for anniversary celebrations, helps acknowledge an unhappy anniversary and thereby lessens inexplicable emotional reactions.

Such anniversaries might be acknowledged by lighting a candle, returning to a specific location attached to the person or experience, saying a prayer, looking at pictures, creating a garden, or any explicit action that has, as part of its purpose, the idea of both acknowledging and creating some kind of container for feelings of sorrow.  In the Jewish tradition, for example, on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, we light a Yahrzeit or memorial candle which burns for 24 hours.

When we have rituals for happy occasions but none for those that are unhappy or sad, in some way we may be attaching more meaning to happy memories.  Or, we may somehow be telling ourselves that we should not be thinking about times in our lives when we experienced pain and, in so doing, we relegate the pain to a place where it can only be expressed in unconscious ways.

Of course not every unexplained feeling is attached to an anniversary, but I’ve learned to be aware of times that my clients have a period of strong emotion that we can’t attach to anything in the present.  It may be due to something we have yet to uncover, but I’ve also found that when I ask questions, sometimes we find that strong feelings in the present are attached to an anniversary from the past that has punctured the present moment.

Even as I write, I find that I have some hesitation in calling some anniversaries happy and others unhappy.  We all have experiences that in some way influence our lives more than others.  Finding a way to acknowledge them and to celebrate their meaning might allow us to accept them without judgment.

Ritual is necessary for us to know anything.

—Ken Kesey

Written by Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS

Published on December 30, 2017