Anniversary Reactions: The Grief That Keeps on Grieving

The worst day without a cheater is better than the best day with one. The other day I made a left-hand turn out of parking lot and misjudged how fast a black SUV was approaching. I dropped into his lane and he hit the brakes and my eyes closed as I waited for the sound of crunching metal and for the hideous slam of impact.

Thank God, it didn’t come. But two other times in the last week, I’ve stopped short behind someone because I misjudged the distance between our cars—after twenty-five years of a clean driving record. Objects slip through my fingers and crash to the floor. I’m forever mopping up something I’ve spilled. I may not be able to run the half-marathon I’m training for because of a cookie dough injury—severe toe trauma involved.

Yesterday my distraction and slow-wittedness was one-half the cause of what could have been a serious accident. The woman (rightfully so) confronted me and I immediately apologized, but she lit into me with the need to prove what a horrible person I am. When I pointed out she herself had broken one of the rules of the place where we were, she informed me she had a very good reason for breaking the rules: the rules do not apply to her. Because she says so. She let loose with an all-too-familiar sneering contempt, which was more than I could handle in the midst of a turbulent day. Her entitlement and my mental state were a dangerous combination. Kind of like the toxic relationship we have with our cheating exes where the collateral damage spreads to the innocent ones we love.

These near-misses are the heralds of an anniversary reaction, when your body remembers and acts out past traumas. Take them as the wake-up calls they are, signs you need to slow down and take care of you.

Twenty-four years ago this week, I met Cheater Ex, setting my eighteen-year-old self down the path of life with a compulsive liar and serial cheater. One year ago, Cheater Dad abandoned my mentally-incapacitated mother for another woman in a sudden, cruelly-executed cut-and-run that left my brother and I scrambling to take over our mother’s care. My body is tired. My body does not want me behind the wheel of a car. So I am listening to my body and spending much of the day cocooned in bed, where I can do no harm to myself or others. Reading Anne Lamott. Praying. Writing. Crying.

The depth and strength of this anniversary reaction took me by surprise. Five months ago the anniversary of discovering Cheater Ex is a cheater passed with not much more than what could have been bad PMS. But a lot happened last October. My younger son was recovering from surgery. Cheater Ex and I got into the worst fight of our history, where he informed me he had no respect for me and hadn’t for years, exploding another myth of my past as I absorbed the truth that he not only never loved me, but what he felt for me was contempt. The next day my attorney told me the divorce was final.

Then the Family Crisis hit, detonating the sad rubble of my life, which really was only up for a tired jolt at that point.

Until this month, my brother, sister-in-law, and I had settled into a routine with my mother’s care but all of a sudden a mysterious ailment popped up, for which her doctors can find no cause. Is she having her own anniversary reaction?

I’m back in the black funk, like two years ago during the terrible first months of separation. Grief is a physical presence in my body. A boulder tumbled into my chest and I can’t draw a full breath. I miss my kids with a primal ache, no longer even tenuously accepting the three nights a week they spend at their father’s.

Years ago I would wander around in a light funk one week each April until I’d be morosely standing in line for a tuna sandwich or something and suddenly remember, “Oh yes, this is the week my grandparents died.” A therapist suggested I mark the dates on the calendar so I’m not taken by surprise each year. I did, and the anniversary reactions have been lighter each year since.

Perhaps, going forward, I should mark a big black X over the month of October. It will be the month of quiet time and crying and too many Halloween Oreos.

Our culture shies away from grief. We’re supposed to aspire to keep all that messy sadness under control, to power through our normal routine, letting nothing so pansy-ass as feelings interrupt the flow of daily life.

Yank that idea out of your brain like the invasive weed it is.

The best lesson I learned during my divorce was how to grieve and mourn. That the awful feelings get worse if you fight them, but if you let them crash over you and pull you under for a bit, you’ll eventually find yourself out of the riptide, bobbing along with a hard-earned peace.

And a few extra pounds from the Oreos.

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