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Susan M. Coale, LCSW-C
Anniversary Reactions: The Science Behind Holiday Grief
Hospice of the Chesapeake

Anniversary Reactions: The Science Behind Holiday Grief

As you prepare for the holiday season, we in the bereavement counseling community are preparing to support those feeling the grief that can come when a loved one is no longer there to join in the celebrations and traditions. While grief may be overwhelming at the first holiday season after a death, many are surprised at the intensity of grief that re-surfaces during subsequent holiday seasons. In the past we have shared some helpful interventions for managing the onslaught of emotions many experience during Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Ramadan and the New Year. This year, we want to share some research about holiday grief, which is very real and not to be trivialized.

Understanding the difference between acute grief and integrated grief is helpful. Acute grief generally occurs during the days, weeks and months following the loss of loved one. Will Meek calls it “a transient, yet powerfully painful state” in Psychology Today. It can be debilitating, causing sadness, anxiety, loss of appetite, withdrawal and more.

Over time, most people move into integrated grief. With grief integrated into their everyday, there may be memories that momentarily sadden them, but it is not overwhelming. The loss will always be with them, but they have adjusted to life without the physical presence of their loved one, perhaps discovered strengths they didn’t have prior to the loss of their loved one and, indeed, many say they have become a better person through their journey.

However, as Sidney Zisook and Katherine Shear wrote in “Grief and bereavement: What psychiatrists need to know,” for World Psychiatry, significant events, like the holidays, can “reawaken” acute grief. These are called anniversary reactions. In “The Time Course of Grief Reactions to Spousal Loss,” published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Katherine B. Carnelley, Camille B. Wortman and cohorts conducted a study of widows and widowers to quantify the frequency of these reactions as well as to better understand the longevity of grieving. They learned that it is common for anniversary reactions to be experienced, sometimes at intense levels, even seven to eight years after the death of a spouse.

So, to experience a sudden wave of painful grief while looking at a shop window dressed up for the holidays, preparing a favorite traditional food or listening to seasonal music is perfectly normal. Many find it helpful to attend a workshop or seminar offered at this time of year specifically addressing holiday grief. It is also perfectly normal to seek help from a mental health professional to get you through this season of profound memories.

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