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The Grip of Anniversaries

Brain Injury Blog by Janet M. Cromer, RN, MA, LMHC

August 5, 2013

The Grip of Anniversaries

As I write this, the calendar says July 5, 2013, but my mind is pulled back to July 5, 1998. That’s because my husband Alan suffered the massive heart attack and cardiac arrest that led to his severe anoxic brain injury fifteen years ago today. Today my mind goes back to Alan’s sudden cardiac arrest on an airplane in Chicago, the hour of resuscitation, the life and death decisions, and the month we spent in an ICU before Alan was stable enough to board an air ambulance home to Boston and months of rehabilitation.

Those are the critical facts, but my heart knows that I remember July 15th as the date life as we knew it ended and our post-brain injury life began. Do you have an anniversary response to your injury date, or that of your family member?  Oh, yeah, like it happened yesterday! That’s the reply I’ve heard from countless survivors and caregivers in support groups and when I speak at conferences. A few days in advance I’ll start to feel distracted and restless, my stomach gets queasy and I don’t sleep well. By now I recognize an anniversary reaction when I see one, and I can plan ways to honor its significance while avoiding getting pulled into the undertow of depression and anxiety.

Anniversaries of life-changing events give us the opportunity to spiral back into the emotions we’re still processing about the injury and subsequent changes. That’s especially true about the grief and ambiguous loss that accompany brain injury. Anniversaries are a chance to reflect on how far we’ve come, to appreciate our efforts and progress, and sometimes make new meaning about all that’s happened since that date. A chance to integrate this dramatic chapter into the narrative of our lives. Anniversaries also let us take stock, be truthful about what we still need and want, and remind us to take action to get those necessities.

Here are a few tips for living constructively with anniversaries.

1.      Recognize the power of the anniversary in advance. Even if you are not tuned in to the date, your body might be. If you feel strange physical sensations or have trouble sleeping, pay attention. If you feel sad, angry, distracted, or irritable and can’t think of why, check the calendar.

2.      Plan how to spend the day. Decide whether it’s healthier for you to be alone, be with a friend, or a combination. You might want to set aside some time to contemplate how you remember and understand events now, since our perceptions change over time. If you want to actively explore feelings or revise how you think and feel about yourself now, spend some time with your journal or a person who knows you well. Maybe you’ve moved beyond the power of the date, but still feel the sadness or wish that things could have been different. Take the time to shed some tears, be angry, express regrets. Then shift your focus to constructive actions or doing something you enjoy. Maybe a personal ritual is in order. For example, Alan asked for a “second birthday dinner” with gifts for a few years after coming back to life. Later he preferred to let the date slide by, while I acknowledged it quietly.

3.      Consider whether you have more than an anniversary reaction. If you frequently flash back to the accident or illness that caused your injury and those memories rule your life, consider seeking an evaluation for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you are a caregiver, and often feel hypervigilant or have intrusive memories or images of the accident or first time you saw your family member in ICU, consider an evaluation for secondary traumatic stress. Both are very serious and disruptive, yet also very treatable. Anniversaries tend to magnify traumatic responses. Also seek counseling for ongoing depression or anxiety. See a healthcare provider for physical symptoms. 

4.      Appreciate all the progress you’ve made. Stop and recognize all the ways you’ve grown, changed, adjusted, or transcended your diagnosis since last year. If you are a caregiver, celebrate your contributions and resilience while planning your next respite break. The longer you provide care, the more often you need the counterbalance of personal replenishment.

Please tell us about your anniversary reactions and what you’ve found helpful. 

About the Author

Janet Cromer, RN, MA, LMHC is the author of the  award-winning book, Professor Cromer Learns to Read: A Couple’s New Life after Brain Injury, the story of caring for her husband, Alan.  Janet also writes the “Caregiver’s Compass” feature for Brain Injury Journey Magazine., and has written many blog articles and Tip Cards for Lash & Associates:


New Normal for caregivers after brain injury

By Janet Cromer, RN, MA, LMHC

There is no single definition of “new normal” that fits every family, since each brain injury and each family is unique. This tip card helps family caregivers understand the adjustment process after a brain injury, for themselves and the survivor, with practical tips for moving forward at home and in the community.






Compassion Fatigue: When caring hurts the caregiver

By Janet Cromer, RN, MA, LMHC

The stress of being a caregiver for a spouse, child, parent or sibling with a traumatic or acquired brain injury can lead to compassion fatigue which is also known as secondary traumatic stress. It can result in physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion. This tip card helps family caregivers understand the meaning of compassion fatigue and learn how to create a wellness plan to protect a caregiver’s physical and mental health.





Stress Resilience for caregivers after brain injury

By Janet Cromer, RN, MA, LMHC

For caregivers of survivors with brain injury, the ability to reduce and manage stress is challenging, but skills can be learned to increase resiliency. Caregivers can run the risk of burnout or compassion fatigue and compromise their own health and well-being. This tip card helps family caregivers understand the harmful effects of stress and gives strategies to create a resilience plan.





Caregiving after Brain Injury for Adults and Veterans

By Janelle Breese Biagioni, Janet Cromer, RN, LMHC, Marilyn Lash, MSW, Carolyn Rocchio

Special set of 5 tip cards has information for family and caregivers of a person with brain injury. These tip cards have information with strategies on caregiving, finding a new normal, managing stress, becoming resilient, coordinating care, and avoiding compassion fatigue and burn-out.

See more about Janet Cromer at http://www.janetcromer.com