Grieving the Pandemic: How to Navigate the Anniversary

 

The anniversary of an event can be a funny thing. Depending upon the event associated with the anniversary, it can be either celebrated or grieved. They can be anticipated with excitement or they might be dreaded.  When we have a grief response to an anniversary it is called an Anniversary Reaction. This powerful reaction can occur upon the anniversary of any painful event, especially ones where there was significant grief and loss. Not everyone experiences anniversary reactions. Some of us are more sensitive to them than others. Some of us may have minds that pay little attention to time, dates, and the time of year. Yet, for some of us, our minds are ever mindful of the onset or approach of significant dates on the calendar; as though we have an emotional alarm clock that goes off at a certain time each year. Each one of our minds are different. Some of us just seemingly glide through anniversaries without notice, yet some may not be able to get out of bed for a week on the day of an anniversary. It is not well understood why some people experience them more than others. Before addressing the anniversary of the pandemic, let’s learn a bit more about these anniversary reactions.

When we think of anniversaries, we often think of them as being a one-day event. We anticipate just finding that one day to be difficult. However, many of us will begin to experience the anniversary days or weeks in advance and we might even find relief once the actual anniversary arrives. Some of us might associate a certain month with a loss or even a certain season. For some of us, we might not be consciously aware of the approaching of an anniversary of a loss or painful event. However, the unconscious mind is aware and lets us know through somatic or bodily symptoms. We might find ourselves experiencing body aches, fatigue, brain fog, emotional numbness, unexplained episodes of getting emotional, irritation, not sleeping as well, and just feeling “off”.  We might even feel a spike in feeling like something bad is going to happen despite not being able to identify anything ominous in the present. Yet for some of us, we are well aware of the approach of the anniversary and we are adept at knowing what to expect and are prepared for the journey so to speak. We use the word journey because that is what anniversary reactions are like for some of us. They are like riding an emotional time machine back in time. Physically we are in the present, but a portion of our mind is back in the past; revisiting a time and event that had a profound effect on us. This can be a very confusing experience if we are not aware of what is happening.

If we are someone who experiences a response to anniversaries, we can be deliberate and decide, do we want to dread them or lean into them? Do we want to try and avoid them or learn from them? If we try to run from or avoid them, we would do well to remember the old adage, “you can run, but you can’t hide”. Unresolved grief does not just go away unfortunately. However, that is just fine. We do not need to dread these anniversaries; we can use them to our advantage by using them to become more insightful and self-aware. It is likely that if we experience significant anniversary reactions that we have some unresolved grief. There may have been some aspects of the grief process that we missed or skipped. This is especially common if there was complicated grief. Complicated grief involves more than just grieving the absence of someone or something. It involves layers of grief; there being a layer of grief for each aspect of the event or relationship that we lost. We often find that when we go back and readdress our grief associated with a loss and find an aspect that we missed, all future anniversaries are much less painful and much easier to pass through.

It should be noted that for some us, anniversary reactions are not just about a single individual loss. Our minds might choose to associate the anniversary with all other losses associated with that one loss. For example, if we had a complicated or limited relationship with a parent, that also was surrounded by a sad or painful home environment growing up, our minds might use that anniversary of the death of that parent to also commemorate all of the pain and loss that was experienced in the home growing up.  Any unresolved grief associated with loss of a carefree or tragic home life may also surface upon the anniversary of the passing of the parent. It is important to be mindful of this. Some of us may even experience a mini-grief process all in the one week or month associated with the anniversary. We might find that as we take that emotional time machine back in time, we actually go through all of the stages of grief, but in an accelerated way. All the stages of grief that we had experienced over a year or years, gets re-experienced in a more brief way over days or weeks. There is the anticipation, the actual grief and sadness, then perhaps some agitation and anger, more grief, than finally a coming to terms with the loss. We might find that as the anniversary is departing, as we exit from it, we re-experience coming to terms with what happened, whether that be the loss itself or the limitations in the relationship. If it was a parent who passed away whom we had a conflicted or complicated relationship with, it might require a series of “passes” through these anniversaries to iron out all of the wrinkles and to come to terms with the limited parent-child relationship. As we exit the anniversary we may feel at peace and a sense of returning to the present, as though we had been away on a long journey.

Now, let’s apply this knowledge to the pandemic. We are now approaching a universal anniversary that has affected all of humanity. The anniversary of the pandemic is upon us. We would do well to not underestimate the significance of this anniversary, especially with how it might play on our emotions. We have found ourselves in a strange stage of this pandemic. On one hand there is some normalcy in that churches are open, most businesses are open, and school activities have resumed. However, on the other hand, many of us feel as though there is an invisible force or barrier preventing us from fully re-engaging our former life. On some level we feel that our life has shrunk. The effects of the pandemic at this stage are a bit more subtle to detect than they were last year. As a result of this, we may underestimate the significance of the anniversary. Again, some of us will be more sensitive to it than others.

Just the other day someone said to me that they had a weird feeling, like something was going to happen. The day passed without incident. They then realized that the day felt like last March. The sun was shining as it would in March and it felt like early spring. Also, the calendar will soon switch to March. They felt an emotional shift as they realized they were experiencing the anniversary of the pandemic. Another person observed that as they entered a grocery store, they had a flashback to those troubling grocery store trips back in March of 2020. Those trips in which shelves were wiped clean, people nervously darted around the store, and each of us had to undergo our own disinfecting routines once we got home. Were those not profound days back in March 2020? The losses and changes that occurred did not happen gradually. They occurred suddenly, swiftly, and dramatically. One week we were in church celebrating lent, then literally overnight the churches closed, schools closed, all professional sports were cancelled, we separated from each other, hugs disappeared, fellowship was lost, precious school events were wiped out, handshakes became no more, and rituals and traditions were cancelled. Soon came the masks and we lost the ability to see the full human face and for many weeks were only able to see fearful and overwhelmed eyes. We suddenly became a threat and danger to one another; rather than closeness we learned to stay six feet away from each other. Sadly, many had to experience funerals of loved ones early in the pandemic in which they were prevented from visiting hospitals or even attending funerals. Events and rites of passage that we need for closure were denied to many, whether it was to someone grieving or that high school or college senior who never received the closure of graduation.  Are these not losses? Were these not profound?

Due to the fact that the losses of the pandemic are ones we are not accustomed to, it will be easy for many of us to miss the signs we are experiencing some anniversary reaction as we head into March. If we find ourselves observing and feeling the anniversary, it is okay. It is normal. We can embrace it, lean into it, and grieve. Identifying it and accepting it is half the battle. The other half is grieving it as each one of us grieves; it might be tears or it might be just needing to talk about it. We might even find it helpful to go and do some of the things we used to do. The only thing that will happen if we do these things is that we will feel better and navigate this anniversary so it doesn’t bother us so much next year. Also, it can be helpful to identify if we gained something positive from this past year. The anniversary may be an opportunity to give thanks for something positive or to reflect on that which was gained.

All of this anniversary reaction information may sound very intimidating. However, anniversary reactions do not need to be dreaded or feared. We see, that they are trying to tell us something.  They teach us that we might have to tend some grief or aspects of a past painful experience that we missed or skipped over. Our minds have a natural need to gain a sense of mastery over experiences before moving on.  These anniversaries give us opportunities to delve a bit more deeply into ourselves and to gain some more insight and self-knowledge that every Orthodox Christian needs on their path to Theosis. This is all in the spirit of clearing away all of the debris, so nothing from the past hinders our spiritual growth. None of us are alone in this, this is an anniversary we will all go through together, so let’s acknowledge it.

About Fr. Joshua Makoul

Fr. Joshua Makoul has been serving as the Dean of St. George Cathedral in Pittsburgh since 2012. Before that time, Fr. Joshua worked in the Counseling Field for 16 years. This involved work in a family-based, school-based, and an outpatient setting. Fr. Joshua received two years of training in family therapy at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center and completed a one year certificate course in Cognitive Behavior Therapy at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. During his last six years working in a small outpatient group, he was supervised by Dr. Jesus Salas who supervises at the Beck Institute in Philadelphia. Fr. Joshua received his Masters Degree in Counseling Psychology from Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia and his Bachelors in Psychology from Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. He is licensed in the state of Pennsylvania for counseling. For seminary he attended Holy Cross Seminary in Boston and received an M.Div.

2 comments:

  1. Every blog post of yours is excellent and helps me so much but this one is profound. Thank you for taking the time to write it. Thank you for putting in words what we are all feeling.

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