Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Anniversary Reaction

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 19, 2013

A reader writes:” My brother and I were like twins growing up: 14 months apart and inseparable. When I was 25 and he was 26, he died of cancer. At the time, I didn’t grieve hardly at all, as I was raised not to talk about intense feelings much. So…I put a lot of these painful feelings away, and didn’t realize until this past year, when I was going through other stresses, that there was even something called delayed grief. The pain has been overwhelming. I am going through counseling with a really good therapist who is helping, but I am dreading my brother’s death anniversary date that is coming up next month. It is always an extremely difficult month for me. I am especially dreading it this year. I had been doing better lately but the past two days I started crying just thinking about my brother. I miss him so much. He was my best friend in the world and no one can ever replace him. On top of everything else, I have guilt feelings that I didn’t do enough to help him get diagnosed earlier. It has been so many years since he died but it feels like just yesterday.”




In cruising the internet, I found this tale, helping me pinpoint my curiosity about this idea of the “anniversary reaction.” There is something, for some folks, like this reader above, that I will call Zach, in which the anniversary becomes the focal point for grief. It is almost as if Zach’s mind has given him permission to grieve around the anniversary time, whereas at other times, he would feel foolish or “too sensitive”. On the other hand, maybe the anniversary, the time of year, the length of the days, the holidays, bring back a flood of memories which bubble up causing this psychological pain. Either way, and of course, it could be both, Zach expresses this sentiment that “the pain has been overwhelming,” leaving us, the reader, to wonder what he means by that. He is “dreading” his brother’s death anniversary, but what is he afraid of? One imagines that he is afraid of the despair, the heart-wrenching feeling, of helplessness that he cannot bring his brother back. What is “overwhelming,” I think, means that he is fearful that his ego will be taxed beyond it’s typical coping skills, leaving him with no means to soothe himself. In the event that he cannot soothe himself, he fears he will be left feeling agitated and alone, perhaps with a temptation towards conscious or unconscious self-destructive behaviors,  in order to help him escape from his psychological state. All egos, no matter how strong, or well-developed, can face circumstances which exceed it’s ability to find healthy coping skills. On this level, Zach’s fears are understandable. His “good therapist” can help him understand his fears, but by no means, can this “good therapist” protect him from his anticipated need to escape his psychological state. On the other hand, maybe understanding that the ego might, in fact, be stressed in ways that it has never been stressed before, might help Zach be more thoughtful about developing new, and deeper ways of managing, what at this time, seems to be an unbearable reality. Maybe that is what I do.

4 Responses to “Anniversary Reaction”

  1. Shelly said

    Zach’s story is a difficult one. It almost reminds me of a “twinless twin” story or survivor’s guilt. How could have Zach have done more to have helped his brother overcome his cancer? He could not have. His guilt is what eats away at him, year after year. Why did his brother die and Zach live? It is the job of the therapist to help Zach discover this for himself and to offer deep understanding so that each year Zach isn’t eaten alive with remorse. Not an easy job. One can’t “protect” Zach from himself and his “anticipated need to escape his psychological state.” One can only help ease his guilt.

    • Yes, Shelly. Thank you. Yes, the “twinless twin” story is heart-breaking. We assume that our siblings will always be there and that we will pass away in our birth order, when we are a ripe old age. The betrayal inherent in having another story to tell is hard to internalize. None of this makes sense, except when one understands unconscious contracts that we make with ourselves.

  2. Ashana M said

    That is just how biographical memory works–it is associative rather than linear or taxonomic. And it is both contextual and state dependent, so that the weather, the length of the day, other events that occur around the sound time, all have connections to the memories of the time period of the original loss, and consequently have links to both his thoughts about the death and to the affective state he experienced (but suppressed) a the time of the loss. So the event, his thoughts about it, and his affective state are repeatedly brought to mind for him through far more than the usual number of avenues at this time of year. It isn’t about the date so much as about everything that tends to be the same for us from year to year.

    Halloween has usually been a difficult time of year for me, but I remember the year I spent it in a far-away country where it isn’t celebrated. There were no reminders whatsoever. Not just no decorations in the stores and no trick-or-treating children, but completely different weather, a different length of day (no setting back the clock), no Santa Ana winds. I hardly noticed the anniversary at all. There was absolutely nothing to bring to mind all of the associations I have with that anniversary aside from the calendar.

    • Thanks, Ashana. A geographical intervention finally makes sense! For most emotional experiences, one takes one’s neuroses wherever they go, but in the case of grief reactions, changing the environment can be very helpful. Your personal story rings true to me. I can see how a complete shake up of the external environment gives relief to the internal world. Thanks again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: