Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/11/2022
When we lose someone we love, the first few weeks or months following a loss can be a difficult time.
But another difficult time many people may struggle with is a death anniversary, or the annual date of someone’s death.
Grief doesn't magically end at a certain point after a loved one's death — reminders often bring back the pain of loss.
This is why we’ve put together a guide on how to cope with the anniversary of a loved one’s death.
A death anniversary is the anniversary of the day that someone died. It's also called a remembrance day.
While all death anniversaries may feel painful, the first anniversary after someone’s death can be especially difficult.
Losing a loved one can certainly impact most people, although it’s important to remember that everyone deals with grief differently.
It’s common to feel unsettled, restless or have a sense of dread on the anniversary of a death, but it’s also okay not too.
Common anniversary reactions can include:
Avoidance. Around the anniversary of a death, you might try to avoid anything related to the trauma or death. Some people might have such strong feelings around the anniversary that they try to avoid certain places, people, thoughts or feelings.
Negative changes in beliefs and feelings. When a death anniversary comes around, old thoughts, guilt or shame may return. You may also feel a lot of sadness. These negative emotions may make it hard for you to connect with loved ones, such as friends and family.
Frustration and anger. The anniversary of a death can sometimes cause you to feel frustrated that you’re not further along in the healing process. You may also experience anger at the unfairness that this loss happened at all, and all of the ways it has changed your life since then.
Anxiety. Anxiety is a natural part of the grieving process. Around the death anniversary day, anxiety can manifest as avoiding conversations about the milestone, physical symptoms like a quickened heartbeat or the belief that you will “fall apart” or won’t be able to deal with the anniversary. Those who are dealing with prolonged grief may be at a higher risk for developing anxiety.
Death, whether expected or unexpected, can be a traumatic event, which is a shocking, scary or dangerous experience that causes physical, emotional or psychological harm.
Just over 5 percent of respondents to a World Health Organization survey developed PTSD following the unexpected death of a loved one.
Some people may also develop a condition called prolonged grief disorder after the death of a loved one, which is when grief is long-lasting and interferes with daily life.
Prolonged grief is marked by the following symptoms:
Difficulty accepting the death
Pervasive yearning for the deceased
Withdrawal from social activities
Prolonged grief disorder may affect as many as seven to 10 percent of people who have lost a loved one.
Regardless of how you feel during the months or years after a loss, you can still prepare to cope with the anniversary of death.
While a death anniversary may be difficult, there are several ways to get through the day.
You can prepare for an upcoming anniversary of death by planning. You may not know what to expect the first year after a loss, but getting rid of as many stressors as possible can help, especially if you feel like you may be extra vulnerable.
Be sure to get support if you need it — reach out to friends and family who can support you or schedule extra sessions with a mental health professional if you see one. You should also try to avoid scheduling any big changes (like a move or job change) around the time of the anniversary.
Commemorating or marking a death anniversary in some way can be an important part of the grieving process. In fact, it has shown to lower levels of grief.
A 2019 study on those who had recently lost a loved one found that the funeral and post-funeral rituals — such as lighting a candle or creating a place in memory of the deceased — had positive impacts on those grieving both in the short- and long-term.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, can help you better handle the fear, guilt or anxiety associated with the death of a loved one.
Certain types of therapy can help you develop strategies to get through your sadness.
Grief counseling, also known as grief therapy or bereavement therapy, is designed to help you process and cope with loss. This type of therapy involves working individually with a grief counselor or in a support group.
One study of 344 participants — the majority of which were women — found that those who received grief counseling after the loss of a loved one experienced fewer symptoms of grief over time.
Our guide to grief therapy techniques and activities covers all the information about this type of psychotherapy.
According to a 2016 research paper sponsored by the American Counseling Association, ACT may help reduce prolonged, complicated grief by encouraging clients to use mindfulness to accept their experiences.
You can learn more about the benefits of therapy in our guide.
If you need help dealing with your grief or managing a loss, you can consult with a licensed mental health professional through our online mental health services.
If you feel up for it, visiting your loved one’s final resting place can be a way to reflect on their life and your time together.
Photos and videos can help you remember the times you and your loved one shared.
You and others who were affected by the loss can also share photos or videos and the memories associated with them.
Sometimes medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can help people deal with traumatic stress symptoms.
It should be noted that these medications have very little impact on grief. However, some people may develop depression after the death of a loved one, and antidepressants may be helpful in those cases.
If you’re struggling with an upcoming death anniversary, consult with a healthcare provider about any symptoms you’re experiencing. They can determine if medication is the right treatment option for you.
Remember that the grieving process is different for everyone and there is no right or wrong way to mark a death anniversary. What feels right may change from year to year.
While anniversaries of lost loved ones are difficult times, taking time to remember them can be cathartic and a way to honor them.