Dealing with Anniversary of Trauma

Dear Anne – Next week I will be dealing with anniversary of trauma. It will be the anniversary of D-day. When I think of all the lies my husband told me, my heart breaks. Today, my husband is very remorseful, has come completely clean, and he himself feels repulsed by what he did to me and how much he hurt me. He wants to move on. “Why do we even have to bring up her name ever again?” he asks. I’m doing better, but I am not over it yet. I still need to talk about it. How do we make it through this anniversary date?

Anne’s Answer:

Often life affords me a personal experience, that better prepares me to answer the questions we receive every day from people whose marriages have experienced the trauma of an affair.

A trauma is an experience that is life threatening. Affairs are life threatening because they destroy families, create rage, emotionally hijack our minds, and leave the betrayed person with their hopes and dreams dashed to pieces. It can feel as if your whole life has been a lie, and now nothing is safe and no one can be trusted.

Betrayed spouses often experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder including recurrent involuntary traumatic memories, dreams, dissociative reactions, intense emotional and/or physiological stress in reaction to trauma triggers. They also often experience negative changes in mood or thoughts, irritability, angry outbursts, guilt, shame, self-destructive behaviors, hypervigilance, magnified startle responses, and trouble eating and sleeping.

Approaching the anniversary of such a trauma, which can be the D-day itself or the anniversary of any specific injury associated with the trauma, tends to produce anxiety. How do I get through this painful day?

We just passed one of these anniversaries ourselves – albeit of a different nature – there are parallels.

Last Easter we spent with our wonderful son and his wife, and some of our grandchildren. Never in a million years would any of us have imagined, our son had only a few weeks to live. The pain and sadness of his death, the empty place it has left in our hearts, and the finality of it are harsh realities to bear. Like you think of your “anniversary dates” before they arrive, usually with anxiety, I was thinking of Easter, in the days leading up to it.

12 Strategies for Dealing with Anniversary of Trauma

1. Remind yourself that anxiety about the day tends to be worse than the day itself.

The day before Easter, I found myself needing to take care of one of those essential life tasks – grocery shopping. A clerk at the store asked about my plans for Easter, and the first thing that rolled out of my mouth was, “I don’t have to cook this year.” (As if that were actually a good thing.) I quickly added the truth, “I would much rather be cooking, and having all my kids home!”

2. Make a plan for your anniversary day.

Aim to create new good memories and/or give yourself room to grieve properly.

3. Consider using the distraction technique.

Do something totally different than you usually do on this day. If the anniversary is related to a holiday consider celebrating differently than you have in the past.

I am grateful for the fact that we have a wonderful church to attend. The music is amazing and I can count on an inspiring, encouraging and practical message that will make sense. I knew the Easter service would be extra special, so that was the first part of my plan.

Second, we made plans for Easter Brunch in a restaurant.

Third, I heard about the movie, “I Can Only Imagine” featuring the story of Bart Millard, leader of the band MercyMe, and how this famous song came to be. Going to the theatre to watch this movie was the final part of my plan to get through the day. This movie is a story about redemption of trauma and pain.

4. Tell someone closest to you about your plan so they can support you.

5. It’s probably best not to be alone.

6. It’s perfectly okay, and even good, to set aside some time or even create a service, ceremony or ritual to commemorate the loss.

Don’t stuff your feelings. Let the tears come out, or the anger. A healthy outlet for anger is simply to acknowledge the anger, to give a voice to those feelings. But make sure you do so in a way that does not hurt anyone physically or emotionally, does not hurt yourself, and does not damage property. Don’t be afraid to embrace and acknowledge your grief journey.

In discussing how to get through a difficult anniversary, one woman shared with me how her husband had sex with another woman on the couch in their living room. I suggested they burn the couch on the anniversary she was anxious about, especially given they had an acreage and could safely do so on their property.

7. Consider what you do or don’t want this day to be in the future and begin working towards this.

Our son died on May 13. This year that falls smack dab on Mother’s Day. (Luckily this won’t always be the case.) I’ve thought long and hard about what I am going to do about this, and I have decided that in years to come, I don’t want to taint Mother’s Day for my grandchildren by making it about death and sadness. It’s Mother’s Day, and it’s important for children to have the opportunity to honor their mother and their grandmother on that day. I will bring flowers to my sons grave early in the morning, and spend some time remembering him there. But then I will spend the rest of the day allowing Mother’s Day to be Mother’s Day.

8. Leave room in your heart for the possibility that good things could happen this day.

Your past does not need to define your future.

This is an attitude shift. Instead of being stuck in gloom and doom, look for the good that could possibly come on this day.

I had a friend who lost her husband a few years ago. He died suddenly of a heart attack, alone in a hotel room while on a business trip. She loved him dearly. Sometime after his passing she told me that she had been praying to God, saying, “I can’t deal with the fact that I never got to say good-bye. Please God, please. Let me see him again. Just once. I need to say good-bye.” God had granted her request in the form of a dream. In her dream she had a conversation with her husband and got the closure she needed. Her dream was so real to her, she said she believed it was real, that they actually had been together. An extra miraculous thing occurred at the end. Her husband said, “I can’t stay with you any longer. I have to go now. I have to go back to our daughter. She is here with me.” At first my friend, was caught off guard, as they don’t have any children who have died, but instantly she remembered her miscarriage. It had been a girl.”

Now that I had lost my son, I prayed to God for such an experience, but I did not get it. So instead, I have often passed messages on to him through God in my prayers; “Jesus, please tell Dustin ….”

In the early hours of Easter morning, I found myself tossing and turning in and out of restless sleep, struggling with negative thoughts. If such a terrible tragedy could be awaiting me around the corner from last Easter, what tragedies might be next?

Then I had a dream. In my dream God spoke to me and said, “Dustin asked me to pass on a message to you: “Mom, why are you worrying? Don’t you realize that God is watching you every moment? He is working out His plan for your life. And it’s a very good one!”

Peace, comfort and joy came over me. This message is exactly how my son would speak; short and to the point. And it just makes sense. Here I am passing on messages to my son through God. So he sends a message back. Whatever you make of it, this was a really good experience for me, and I am glad my heart was open to receive it.

9. Remind yourself that you are working towards acceptance and/or forgiveness of what happened, because it is not possible for it to un-happen.

One definition of forgiveness is choosing to let go of your bitter, angry and hateful feelings – thoughts of punishing those who hurt you, hurting them back, and getting revenge. Everyone has a story, a difficult, painful, tragic story of their own. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. No one is exempted from pain and suffering in this life. It’s not your fault. You did the best you knew how. Would you really be willing to trade your suffering for someone else’s? What made you think you were above this? Why did you think this could happen to others but not to you?

10. Consider what kind of a man or woman you desire to be.

Determine in your will this is who you are. Act accordingly. Determine that you will not be defined by your tragedy.

I want to be a joyful woman who people enjoy being around, so I will lean into my pain and process it. Then I will embrace my identity as a joyful woman. Sometimes we have to give ourselves permission to enjoy life after our tragedies, to live in the present and to embrace whatever pleasurable moments life affords us.

11. Think about all the things you do have to be thankful for.

12. Focus on your purpose.

Why are you here in the first place? What will your life stand for? Focus on fulfilling that purpose. Believe God has a good plan for your life. We will not always understand or find a purpose for life’s tragedies, injustices and all the wrongful hurts we suffer. Sometimes it’s just bad. But that doesn’t change the fact that we can choose to live for a higher purpose – we can choose to be a force for good in this world. Even if that just means smiling and being kind to whomever we encounter today. Don’t expect a pain free life.

I love what Scott Peck says in his classic book, The Road Less Travelled:

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth, because once we see this truth we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”