Posted by: riverchilde | October 29, 2014

Surviving the anniversary

“…[R]emember that every day is a disaster anniversary for someone. For those survivors of disaster who are our family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, clients, and patients, it can be helpful to understand these common emotional reactions leading up to and on anniversary dates. Some people will need emotional space and solitude, others close contact and a need to participate in anniversary events, and still others may want to try and avoid anniversary reminders altogether by going on a vacation or simply treating it as ‘another day’. No matter what the anniversary of Sandy or other disasters means to your loved ones, let them know the most important thing they can hear during that day or any day: They’re not alone, and you’re there for them no matter what.” Two Years After Sandy: Addressing the Emotional Needs of Survivors, Huffington Post, Oct. 23,2014


As many of you know, I am a volunteer with Camp Noah, a mobile daycamp that serves children who have experienced disaster-related trauma. I’ve been in Lyons, CO (flooding); Moore, OK (tornado); Joplin, MO (tornado); northern Minnesota and Wisconsin (flooding); and north Minneapolis (tornado amid ongoing trauma and poverty). Last year, Camp Noah responded to Hurricane Sandy, among other natural disasters in the U.S.

This Huffington Post article, written with Hurricane Sandy in mind, does an excellent job of addressing the issue of how to interact with trauma survivors on the anniversary of the disaster. Here’s my personal perspective:

1. Recognize that the week(s) leading up to the anniversary can be as bad (or even worse) than the anniversary itself.

2. Make a statement recognizing the significance of this week: “I’ve been thinking about you this week.” If it’s an anniversary of someone’s death: “I’ve been remembering Alex this week.” The latter is the most precious gift you can give someone grieving the loss of a loved one–acknowledging that you remember them. We are so afraid everyone will forget about our loved ones and their very real lives in the world.

3. Don’t ask: “What are you going to do on the anniversary?” Often we don’t really know yet. Sometimes people create annual rituals; other times they just want to survive the week. Needs can vary from year to year. On the first anniversary of Alex’s death, I really needed activity that brought life and light into the world. So we invited friends and family to package food at Feed My Starving Children, a nonprofit organization that packs meals specifically formulated for malnourished children and ships them to over 70 countries in the world. FMSC was one of Alex’s favorite service activities, and his spirit was very much present with us that day. “Soy Boy,” as Alex was dubbed for his performance as soy-protein provider at his last packing event with his youth group, has a long history with FMSC, including outings with his classmates at school, with his Cub Scout troop, at a church mobile-packing event and even as one of his birthday parties. Packing food in his memory was a bittersweet activity, but very meaningful. In addition, that anniversary I asked people to “Pay It Forward” through acts of random kindness in Alex’s name and post their efforts on his memorial FB page. For myself, I shopped for and purchased small items for goodie bags that I later assembled and delivered to a local pediatric ward. I also grocery shopped for Alex’s favorite foods and delivered them to a food shelf specifically for teenagers. Doing so provided a distraction during the week leading up to the anniversary. However, on the second anniversary, my goal was to simply endure the week. I had just graduated with my MA degree the weekend before (an emotional experience in and of itself), and I had no energy or desire to do anything else. Next year, who knows?

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4. Realize that other dates and events may be as or more difficult than the anniversary. Birthdays, holidays, graduations, anything that provides a stark contrast between “what was” and “what now is” can be painful. Weather conditions, events that happened  immediately before the disaster, seasonal changes, can all trigger painful memories and feelings.

5. Don’t project your own feelings onto the survivor. Avoid comments like “You must be so sad this week,” “I’ll bet you just wish you could cut this week out of the calendar,” or any other statements that assume you know how someone is feeling. You don’t. Sometimes the survivor can’t even articulate how he or she is feeling. Don’t force them to sort through their feelings if they aren’t able to or don’t want to.

6. Be a patient, supportive and non-anxious presence. Whatever the survivor is experiencing at any moment is what he or she needs to experience. Listen to their non-linear babbling without trying to make sense of it for them. A listening, non-judgmental ear is the best balm there is for the jumble of emotions incited by anniversaries or other memory triggers.


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