December 4, 2022: When Old Pain Resurfaces

It’s been over a week since I received “Happy Thanksgiving” wishes from some of my American friends, unaware perhaps, that Canada’s Thanksgiving occurs in early October.   Yet I do have wonderful childhood memories of the U.S. Thanksgiving holidays, celebrated with my father’s extended family in Northern California.  I had hoped to be able to  introduce my husband to the fun of a Bray family Thanksgiving, but by the time we returned to California, the once annual family celebrations were simply memories.  Then, within little more than a  year after our return, my father was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and died three months later, on Thanksgiving Day, 1992.  For years afterward, the November anniversary  served only to ignite the sense of loss of my father’s death and in its wake, the unexpected estrangement from my siblings.

For years, the old pain would surface each November.  My journal pages were filled with memories of my father’s death and the hurtful aftermath.  I wrote to try to make some sense of it.   Yet, gradually the pain softened, helped by time and our return to Toronto.  Yet each November, my father’s memory would be reignited, and with it, sorrow.  This year,  even with my friends’ holiday wishes, the date passed without the events and sorrow associated with my father’s death.  It had taken years to rid myself of the painful remembrance of that time.

 It can happen to anyone.  Anniversary dates of painful or traumatic events seem to stir up old emotions and memories.  Psychologists tell us that more  times than not, anniversaries associated with loss, trauma or serious illnesses are remembered in greater  detail and can trigger old emotional pain.   Some researchers think that the tendency to remember negative events more acutely than positive ones may have evolutionary roots and adaptive value, allowing our brains to apply this knowledge in similar situations and protect us from happening again (The Washington Post, November 1, 2018). 

It’s called the “anniversary effect” and  refers to the disturbing feelings, thoughts or memories that resurface  on or near a  date marking a significant or traumatic event. Old painful memories may resurface, something like an “annual echo” of a personal trauma. Those old emotions, thoughts or memories may signal you’ve not yet fully recovered from your experience.

Somehow, our bodies know…the weather changes or we pass a familiar date…

—  Ariela Paulsen, 2021

Writing in The Mighty Well blog, Ariela Paulsen notes that remembering events like a cancer diagnosis, serious illnesses, or loss can spark a sudden shift to coming face-to-face with your own mortality.  The new awareness takes an emotional toll.  As the  “anniversary” of those events occurs, old memories, sadness, irritability and other emotions can resurface.  It’s named  “The Anniversary Effect,” and refers to resurfacing of disturbing memories and emotions on the “anniversary” of a significant and or traumatic event from the past.  It’s like an “echo” of past trauma, and reliving those sorrows is a natural part of the healing process. 

Among the men and women who attend my writing workshops, memories of those painful or traumatic events are often first to be recalled and expressed.  The writing that emerges is raw, emotional and descriptive.  It may elicit strong emotions, but  there’s an advantage to  plumbing those depths.  As individuals begin to make sense of difficult memories and emotions, insight occurs .  Those painful  memories are not forgotten, but the sorrow and anger associated with them begins to soften, allowing healing to occur.   

There’s a saying that time heals all wounds.  Perhaps it does, but not without remembering and articulating the memories of our painful or traumatic experiences.  In doing so, we can begin to see our things in a new light and make sense of those difficult life events.  The first step is to confront the memories and discover ways to get yourself “through” what might be a painful or anniversary set of memories. The American Psychological Association offers the following suggestions to help: event

  • Recognize and acknowledge your feelings; this is part of the healing process.  Remember that your feelings are temporary.
  • Find healthy ways to cope with your emotional distress.  Focusing on other activities, like taking a walk, writing, or reading can help.
  • Remember and celebrate, whether for loved ones lost or having survived the diagnosis and treatment that come with a serious illness.
  • Remember that you have a support system in friends and family.  Or, you may choose to seek help from a counselor or therapist.  Don’t isolate yourself.

For me, writing has been a significant and useful way to express and understand the pain or emotions of difficult life experiences.  It’s why I continue to lead expressive writing workshops for those who are facing serious and life-threatening illnesses, because, in part, it’s helped me navigate through more than one difficult and emotional life event.

Writing has helped me heal.  Writing has changed my life.  Writing has saved my life.

–Louise DeSalvo, (Writing as a Way of Healing:How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives,) 1999)

Writing for Healing: 

What is the story you need to tell?  Why not try writing it?

  1. Begin with your memories: 
  2. What happened?  Describe the event:  place, time, etc.   Use as much detail as you can.
  3. What emotions did you feel at the time the event occurred?
  4. What is most painful about those memories?   
  5. What helps you in dealing with the emotions of that painful or traumatic event?  Writing?  Therapy?  Other activities?
  6. What insights have you gained from your experiences?

 (A recommended resource:  The Story You Need to Tell, by Sandra Marinella, 2017)

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