November 13. June 24. July 3. Each date is a marker. A moment seared into my memory, and the reason is simple: grief. Each of the aforementioned days is tied to the loss of a loved one. To our last conversation. Our last meeting. To a funeral, or our final “goodbye.” And while some of these losses are recent — I found my mother, for example, face down and clinging to consciousness, late last June — others are distant. My father passed 25 years ago. But the pain and trauma remains. Grief-iversaries are real, and the “grief alarm clock” changes you.
Loss changes you.
Now, I know what you may be thinking: What is a “grief alarm clock?” And, if I’m being honest, I was too — until last week. Until I learned the term while scrolling online and saw Tina Vasquez’s Twitter post.
“I have cried all weekend,” Vasquez wrote. “I couldn’t figure out why, and then I realized that tomorrow is the 11-year anniversary of my mom’s death. I sometimes think about how extreme trauma changes you on a cellular level; how you can develop a grief alarm clock.”
Many commenters offered their sympathies and empathy. Condolences were abound. But others acknowledged Vasquez’s poignant commentary on grief, noting they had nearly identical experiences.
“Anniversary reactions are real,” one commenter wrote. “The body remembers.”
Another echoed a similar sentiment, writing “the body holds the score.”
And another user shared how they cannot control their emotions when the proverbial “grief alarm clock” goes off, no matter how hard they try. “On the exact day and exact time both my parents died, I completely lose it,” Alexander wrote. “Every year. You touch on something very very real.”
Of course, this notion is not surprising. Anyone who has experienced loss knows grief changes you forever. In the days and weeks after a loved one’s death, you tend to live and breathe their loss. Everything you do — the very world you exist in — is colored by trauma. By missed moments and what-ifs. By what should (and could have) beens. Trips to Target and the grocery store become consequential. Dinners are not viewed the same way. Instead of seeing love and companionship, all you see is an empty chair.
Your body responds, literally and viscerally. Your head hurts, your stomach knots, and in some cases you even get physically sick. Grief is exhausting. It wears you down. And you go through a range of emotions, from denial and bargaining to anger, depression, pain, and guilt. Why? Because, as Vasquez mentioned, grief alters you. After loss, your mind and life are redefined.
“A range of studies reveal the powerful effects grief can have on the body,” an article on WebMD explains. “Grief increases inflammation, which can worsen health problems you already have and cause new ones. It batters the immune system, leaving you depleted and vulnerable to infection. The heartbreak of grief can increase blood pressure and the risk of blood clots. Intense grief can alter the heart muscle so much that it causes “broken heart syndrome,” a form of heart disease with the same symptoms as a heart attack… [and since] the systems in the body that process physical and emotional stress overlap, emotional stress can activate the nervous system… contribut[ing] to chronic medical conditions.” Grief can also cause you to cry, suddenly and spontaneously, because the body recalls pain and trauma in a way your mind may not.
“Unprocessed trauma gets ‘stored’ not just in your subconscious mind and memory but throughout your physical being,” an article on Mind Body Green explains. The body, as one commenter said, keeps the score.
Of course, how long you will experience these reactions is dependent on you and the complexities of your grief process. There is no timeline on grief. Things don’t “get better” after the first holiday, birthday, anniversary, or year. And grief can come in waves, as Vasquez herself noted. It can hit suddenly and without warning. But knowing your triggers can be helpful. Identifying problematic dates in advance can help you steel yourself, or at least better understand your emotional response. And having a game plan for when that “grief alarm” goes off is crucial.
I am already stacking therapy appointments for next month, bracing for the trauma I will undoubtedly face.
Does that mean I will not hurt or cry? That I will not experience sadness, anger, guilt, shame, or pain? No. These feelings will come up and I will have to sit them. I will have to process each and every one. But knowing they are coming is helpful. Having a pulse on your “grief alarm” can help you feel in control of something that, all too often, feels like it’s entirely out of your hands.
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