One Year Later: Coping on the Anniversary of a Tragedy

Five considerations for a challenging day of remembrance

Posted Feb 14, 2019

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. This tragic event left 17 individuals dead and many others injured. The survivors and their loved ones were forever changed by this senseless act of violence. A year later, many will again be impacted by the long-term hurt caused by this tragedy.

Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez/Unsplash
Source: Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez/Unsplash

Anniversaries of traumatic events—mass and personal disasters alike—are difficult for a lot of people. It’s common for them to trigger unwanted memories and emotional distress among those affected.

The following are some steps you can take to help you cope with a challenging anniversary. 

Seek social support

Research shows that social support is one of the biggest predictors of resilience after a trauma. Don’t be afraid to reach out to loved ones and friends for extra support around this anniversary. This doesn’t mean you have to rehash or relive the events all over again. Only share what you feel comfortable sharing. If you don’t want to talk about the events, that’s okay. Just spending time and being with others can be healing in and of itself.  You might also find out if there are public gatherings or official ceremonies taking place. Engaging in community activities can help you remember that you are not alone.

Engage in the familiar

Troubling anniversaries can shake your sense of “normalcy” and make you feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster. Because anniversaries can disrupt your daily life, trying to keep a routine can be helpful. That is, try to create some space in your day or days surrounding the anniversary for the familiar. Carving out calm amidst what can feel like chaos can help buffer against the roller-coaster effect. Seeking out familiar places, schedules, and people can be soothing and comforting.

Limit media exposure

It’s okay to be informed and to follow media stories around the anniversary. But be aware that too much media exposure can increase distress. Seeing repeated images that remind you of what happened can trigger strong negative emotional reactions. Maybe you have some lingering unanswered questions and are hoping the news will help you fill in the gaps. You may be better off talking with a close friend or others close to what happened rather than trying to find closure in the news. In addition to hopefully getting more information, you’ll also be getting that ever-so-important social support.

Do something for someone else

Helping others is good for fostering your own resilience. Research has found that assisting someone else in need is an effective way of finding meaning and purpose in your own struggle. Dr. Daryl Van Tongeren, a social psychologist at Hope College, notes that helping others fosters a sense of meaning, purpose, and even feelings of happiness. Similarly, Santa Clara University clinical psychologist Dr. Thomas Plante writes, "In a nutshell, if you want to cope better with stress, serve others. Stress management and resilience can be enhanced by connecting with others in need."

Get professional help if needed

Here are a few signs that you would benefit from additional professional support: You can’t shake the distressful thoughts and emotions brought back by the anniversary; the distress starts to interfere with your everyday life; you notice others are encouraging you to seek professional help. If you find yourself thinking about harming yourself or someone else, then call a mental health professional or 911 right away. There are many resources that can help you determine when and how to get help.