The Grief Body: Our Involuntary Anniversaries of Loss

Jessica Brauer
Dec 28, 2018 · 6 min read

“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing.

Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming.

All we can do is learn to swim.”

–Vicki Harrison

Regardless of my headspace, the weather, the cocktail of hormones dancing through my endocrine system in that particular moment, there are prominent days on my calendar that grab me by the collar and take complete control of my heart. They thrash my body through involuntary darkness, laughing maniacally at the consciously set intentions, gratitude practices and modes of distraction I methodically throw their way.

Some years it creeps up quietly, sneaking behind me and catching me off guard. I’ll poison my brain with too much vodka or pick an unnecessary fight, only to reflect back and discover it was grief in disguise. Other times I’ll feel it coming toward me, like a shift in the seasons, wringing its hands around my heart, pressing its fists into my head. Unable to move my body from bed, bloodshot eyes staring blankly at the time ticking by, I am at the mercy of the past–the days where my heart broke marked in bold, red circles on the almanac of my life.

According to an article from Psychology Today, “Anniversary Effect, sometimes called Anniversary Reaction, is defined as a unique set of unsettling feelings, thoughts or memories that occur on the anniversary of a significant experience.”

Our bodies, physiologically, hold onto our experiences, reminding us what was once, based on history [a day on the calendar] and on situations [the moments you felt, breathed and carried yourself a certain way].

For a decade, Halloween and the days surrounding have filled my chest with panic and fear. I grasp to find joy in the month of apple-picking and punny costumes, frustrated at myself for flailing for an inexplicable reason. Only briefly, when I pause from whipping myself for not appropriately leaning into the spirit of the season, crunchy leaves and pumpkin-spice everything, I can feel the arms of my abuser pushing my face into the bed. I hear the sounds from the costume party behind the cheap, hollow core door and watch the bruises on my arms and neck melt from pink to blue to black.

The days before Valentine’s Day leave me weepy, nostalgic for home–for unconditional, soul-warming love. It’s easily perceived, by myself and others, to be a product of societal pressures from everyone’s love-to-hate-it holiday, Cupid’s special, famed day. But in reality, it’s the unexpected call from my dad to tell me my grandma’s heart, strong as an ox, healthy as can be, stopped in her living room chair.

“Many believe it’s possible to have old, unprocessed anger hidden in the unconscious — anger that affects a person’s energy field and body, even causing illness. Jungian analysts have suggested that unresolved emotional issues that have become buried in the recesses of the mind can cause people to become sick or develop physical pain and diseases. Sadness over a loss might arise as melancholy or emotional sensitivity on a particular day or at a certain time of year, or perhaps as a psychosomatic illness or flare-up of symptoms of a condition. When you have an anniversary reaction of psychosomatic illness, the body might actually be creating a biochemical response to thoughts and emotions that the unconscious is holding on to.”

- Source

My wedding day was beautiful, no doubt, but perfect, worth doting over? Not a chance. Families fought and booze made things worse. His mom interrupted the “first look,” and his uncle pulled him off me for the one moment I got him on the dance floor. My drunk uncle ran one of my best friends off a bridge onto a frozen creek, and in a fit of rage and gin, I told my freshly attained father-in-law to “find a way to fucking fake it.” We emerged from our honeymoon suite after an unanticipated extra day from the NoroVirus that plagued our party. We ate chicken nuggets and gummy bears with the dog on the couch, tallying the numbers who puked on airplanes, highways and back seats, thanking the god we didn’t believe in for not using our clearly-cursed matrimony to kill our elderly, immune-compromised loved ones.

In the year since I lost my husband and my best friend, my body has collapsed on the floor, my heart feeling as if it’s actually breaking, with or without my control, my anticipation of the hurt or my Herculean effort to remind myself that what happened was best and that all will be well.

January: Our anniversary.

March: When he sent me a giant stuffed penguin and asked if I’d be his girlfriend a la check yes or no.

August: My birthday, the day he proposed.

November: The day the divorce was filed.

I hear the way he called me Bear, how he hugged me when my grandma died. I remember the one and only time I saw him bare his soul and the way he poured another drink after he told me how he lied. Despite the passing of time and the wisdom found in my healing, the comforts found in my new and improved life–nature takes over. My grief reaches a crescendo and my plans to host the brunch, get drinks with friends, sink into the bubbles in my bath or sporadically take flight to somewhere extraordinary crumble into sand. The pain takes over. My body becomes a vessel for my heart to reminisce on the times it felt most shattered.

The lesson I’ve learned in all of it, the good and the bad, is that the only thing you can do is let it happen. We can fight like hell to be okay–to be polished and brave-but grief, the real kind, will stop you and have its way, regardless.

It hurts terribly to think of how my grandma hissed when she laughed, slapping her knee, her eyes tiny like raisins in her little, blonde head. When the hurt bubbles up my throat in February, I miss her so much it feels like I can’t speak. But I thumb through her cookbooks, drink cheap-Moscato from her goblets and thank the God she loved so much that she never had to see the years where the sweet man she adored and I separated, where Trump ran our country and Pope Francis got so much press. My pain, though uncomfortable, waves a flag to remind me of the gifts that I had.

When I think about my marriage, how it felt to be supported, protected and loved, my heart space feels vulnerable, exposed and terrified of the evil men and monsters that go boo in the night. But my memories of loving unconditionally, through strain and sickness and mistakes pop up each year to remind me that my capacity to love and give unconditionally is real and a goddamn gift to whoever comes next.

The times I was battered and broken, manipulated like putty in the hands of a cowardly man, were moments where I found my voice, fueled with rage, and my empathy for anybody held under the thumb of an unreasonable, unstable, gutless man. Once a year I am reminded of the aches that live deep in my bones and I’m prompted to yell louder, fight harder for the beings who understand.

The moments our hearts rush with blood, with love and comfort and excitement, are the moments that make us human. We are gifted with the partners that make our hearts race, the family that hugs so well, the tribulations that make us stronger–better humans to the world–and our bodies remind us just that.

A life with loss is human. It’s ugly because it was beautiful. It’s arduous because it was near perfect.

A life without being humbled by heartache is robotic. It isn’t life at all.


Stories that matter. Emotion first and foremost.

Jessica Brauer

Written by

truth seeker ✧ storyteller ✧ wellness advocate ✧ feeler of feelings ✧ learn more at // @jessicaebrauer



Stories that matter. Emotion first and foremost.

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