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.