An understanding of anniversary reactions is especially important for grievers who have suffered their loss a year or more ago. Even if we are not consciously aware of our emotions, our psychological clock will be extremely accurate. Significant days or events from the past will stir feelings which we may act out. For example, I worked with woman who every Spring found herself overwhelmed by uncontrollable bouts of crying. Her ability to concentrate at work suffered, and she became unproductive. Instead of going to work, she went to bars and randomly hooked up with men. After analyzing her reactions, we traced back her disorganization to the pain of her boyfriend's death at age 21. When she was able to express her feelings and recapture the intense pain she felt, she no longer needed to act out so much. Her anniversary reaction moderated to the point where she now has strong desires to blow off work, drink, and pick up men in the Spring, but she instead experiences her anger, sadness and other emotions. Thus she has a hard time, but she weathers the storm with no serious damage.
Anniversary reactions may take strange twists for even those who are aware. Another person who had moderated his reactions through expression and examination, had thought that the birthday of his dead brother would be no problem. The day passed with no special feelings, but then the day after he got a severe headache, which remained for several days until he figured out that he did in fact need to feel sad and had tried to avoid experiencing intense emotions. He had convinced himself that he was over anniversary reactions and in this way he used his knowledge defensively.
People who are grieving prior to the anniversary of their loved one's death or birthday or other significant occurrence, may have experienced a special time such as Christmas/Hannukah or Mother's Day without their relative. This may prove to evoke similar reactions as anniversaries.
It is normal to experience a wide range of feelings around any anniversary or special event such as Christmas/Hannukah. Often people become reflective, withdrawn, sad, irritated, or disorganized. Work or school performance may suffer for a short time, or even become unmanageable. But if the effort to ward off painful feelings is too successful, then the anniversary reaction may trigger excessive behaviors. Increased drinking, law-breaking, inability to concentrate, to work, or to focus one's efforts, serious withdrawal or regression or fragmentation, may be an indication of unprocessed grief. Another question is raised by the length of the reaction. Strong feelings for a short period before, during and/or after an anniversary are usual, but long periods connected to reactions are another symptom to watch for.