Coping with the Anniversary of Trauma or Grief -



As individuals cope with trauma and loss, other life experiences continue. In the first year, a complete cycle of winter, spring, and summer has come and gone, with some days and months passing by in a blur, and some at an endlessly slow pace. As the years go on, the anniversary of a traumatic event or death can still be difficult. For those who are bereaved, the first set of holidays and significant events without a loved one were most likely difficult as families found new ways to mark the days; mourning changes, maintaining old traditions, establishing new ones.

People often hope that the anniversary of a difficult event will end one chapter of life and put certain feelings to rest. But the anniversary also presents an opportunity for memorialization, which can be a helpful part of the grieving process. Anniversary events enable people to share memories, appreciate positive changes that have occurred, and look ahead to the future.

When planning for the anniversary of a traumatic event or when bereaved, it is important to keep in mind that although the event itself was unpredictable and outside one's control, it is possible to have some control over the marking of the event. The following are some suggestions for planning and marking an anniversary.

Main goals

  • Provide choice
  • Have a plan
  • Communicate
  • Provide support
  • Incorporate memorialization

Special considerations for parents, guardians, and other caregivers

  • If children will be in school or elsewhere, you should obtain information about what is planned. This is especially important if the event holds particular meaning for the child, such as the death of a parent.

  • For children who will be with others, away from the family, parents may wish to inform caretakers of any particular concerns, know what support systems are in place for the child, make their availability known, and obtain feedback about how the child coped with the anniversary.

  • Be mindful of expectations about the day and its meaning. The significance of the day may provoke complicated emotions. Relief when the day is over may be mixed with further realization of all that has happened in the past year and how different life has become. Not only will the day bring remembrances of a difficult event or of a person who died, it can also stir feelings and reactions related to the original event. Such an "anniversary reaction" would not be unusual, where there is a re-experiencing of similar thoughts and emotions from the original tragedy.

  • Plan ahead for the day. Include everyone involved - colleagues, children, and parents - in the decision making. Discuss individual thoughts, concerns, ideas, and feelings together. Respect everyone's wishes as much as possible. Children, parents, grandparents, friends, teachers, and staff have their own needs and ways of coping with difficult events. Some may be thoughtful and sad, want to talk about happy memories, want to avoid reminders of the date, want to prepare elaborate remembrance activities, or want to stick to a familiar routine and surroundings. Plan activities and events that provide structured options for different choices.

  • Consider how different options for memorialization fit your needs. If the event was public, such as with the World Trade Center attack or a large natural disaster, there will be many choices of activities. Decide if you prefer to be part of a large public gathering or engage in a more private event; if you want to be involved in traditional ceremonies such as a community service, or something personally created. Anniversaries provide the chance to decrease isolation, feel supported by those who have had a similar experience, and perhaps appreciate any positive outcomes such as renewed community spirit or stronger religious faith.

  • Even those who had been doing "fine" or were adjusting to the trauma or death may experience troubling thoughts or feelings. Upsetting feelings about other events or problems from the past may also become evident as a person feels more unsettled.

  • Be with friends and family and use all resources available. Those who have previously been a source of support will appreciate being asked to help again and can provide comfort and assistance; be it a shoulder to cry on or company in the car. Enlist the help of others to be available or "on call" if needed to support yourself or as a help to children in your care if things begin to feel unmanageable.

  • Be prepared for changes. Plans may be put in place and as the day draws closer, feelings may change. Being flexible and making new plans may be necessary.

  • Be calm and supportive, modeling healthy expression of feelings and control.

  • If the event was public, limit viewing of media. Watching repeated images from the past, and stories about how others are coping with their grief, can be painful and trigger difficult reactions, such as a re-experiencing of past symptoms, or provoke new anxiety and stress related to the trauma.

  • New relationships and exciting new things may now become a part of one's life. As time goes by, children, parents and other family members confront new challenges and realize things have changed. This is a normal part of the ebb and flow of the bereavement process. Some may need help getting through a rough patch, getting perspective on events, managing still troubling feelings, or just talking things over. If events or feelings seem to interfere with everyday activities it may help to seek out a professional.

Special considerations for teachers and other school personnel

  • Have accurate contact information for parents or other contact persons in an emergency. Check with parents about any special concerns specific to a child and his or her vulnerability to difficult feelings.

  • Include all members of the school community in planning the day. Communicate the plan of activities to parents prior to the event. Also plan how to accommodate parents who may wish to be with children during all or part of the events.

  • There should be a prepared structure to the day with allowance for flexibility regarding participation and routine curriculum expectations. The plan may include school-wide or self-designed classroom events, joint parent-and-child activities, or special programming related to community activities.

  • Be informed about signs of difficulty in children and be alert to students who may need to be referred for extra short- or long-term support.

  • Resources inside (e.g. a quiet reading area) and outside the classroom (e.g. the guidance counselor's office or a safe room) should be available for children who may feel stressed or upset.

  • Develop a personal support plan with members of the school community if feelings or events become overwhelming.

Special considerations for school administrators and those in leadership positions in other settings

  • Leaders should be supportive and have a presence with their staff
  • Review safety plans for staff
  • Determine policies and procedures for:

    • Those wanting to be at home with children/family
    • Those concerned/unable to travel to work (e.g. fear of being on bridges or in tunnels)
    • Communication system for unplanned public events (e.g. crisis alert, safety warning)
    • Communication system for notification to supervisor for change in personal plans before or during the work day
    • Staff attendance at outside private, public, religious, community, volunteer gatherings
  • Identify a designated quiet space
  • Determine if there will be a group event to mark the day
  • Be flexible with respect to expectations of workload for the day; some will carry on with tasks, others will be less able to manage work
  • Advise staff to have a plan and structure for their own day and have some familiarity and routine built in if possible
  • Staff should be reminded to limit or monitor viewing of media
  • Remind staff:

    • it may be more difficult for some than others; for those with a particular experience or troubling memory of the day, it can bring on reminders of other difficult times in their lives.
    • to be respectful and sensitive of others' decisions and mood
    • to take care of personal needs/be kind to oneself with respect to eating, sleeping, resting, spending time with supportive family, colleagues, friends
  • Provide nourishment to staff at a specific time and location, e.g. muffins and fruit in the morning, and/or soft drinks or cookies in the afternoon
  • Once the plan has been determined, it should be communicated to staff in advance of the anniversary date


Battles, Hassles, Tantrums and Tears: Strategies for Coping with Conflict and Making Peace at Home, S. Beekman and J. Holmes, 1993, Hearst Books