Postive Coping for Disaster Anniversaries

A special guest blog from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's behavioral health team.

Anniversaries, holidays and other special days help us mark passing time and how our lives have changed. Recognizing those changes on the anniversary of any loss may evoke sad memories, but they may also induce joy and new reasons to celebrate - even after a disaster.

Anniversaries of community tragedies, such as the Aurora theater shooting, High Park Fire or Waldo Canyon Fire, may be especially difficult. Renewed feelings of loss, strong memories and other stress reactions can surface and feel almost as strong as the day of the disaster. Stress reactions can be expressed as emotion, thoughts, physical feelings, behavior or spiritual experiences. Other reminders, including revisited media coverage from the event, police tape and sounds or violent stories that resemble the event, can also be triggers for re-experiencing stress and fear. It is not unusual for this to happen.

These reactions resurface both for survivors and for responders, volunteers, media personnel and service providers who helped during the disaster. Disasters are strong experiences for everyone who was involved, and everyone shares the anniversary.

Emotions come and go like waves in response to reminders and they often ease over time. Most people are able to get through these special anniversary days and get back to feeling a bit better with a little help from friends and family.

Consider these tips to take care of yourself and others during anniversaries and other special days:

  • Be gentle to yourself. Treat yourself with the same kindness you give to others.
  • Know that it is natural to feel sad and/or angry. People may or may not recognize this is a hard day for you. Good wishes and pleasant greetings may just remind you of your losses. This is normal. Try not to fight the feelings, but be aware they are likely connected to your losses and may not be aimed at anyone in particular.
  • Avoid Drugs and Alcohol. It may seem like using drugs or alcohol helps you escape bad feelings or physical symptoms from stress, but they can actually make things worse in the long run by interrupting sleep, causing health or relationship problems and creating potential drug dependence. If you have had a problem with substances before, find people (family, support groups, etc.) or services to support your continued recovery.
  • Make healthy and positive coping choices. Everyone can find healthier ways to manage your feelings and physical symptoms:
    • Connect with trusted friends and family 
    • Eat healthy food 
    • Get good sleep
    • Exercise 
    • Reduce caffeine.
    • Don't just leave the TV on.  Choose programs that will provide the information or experiences that will be educational or healing experiences for your family.
  • Plan activities. This helps you to have some control and to know what to anticipate on this emotionally-charged day. Do what you would like to do rather than what you think you should do. Consider commemorative events or other activities and rituals that bring you comfort. Draw on your faith or spirituality. Do things that might help you with overwhelming emotions - physical exercise helps wash stress chemicals out of our bodies; writing down what we’re feeling can help us name and manage emotions. Try doing some of these activities in the days before and after the anniversary as well.
  • Reach out to family and friends and accept their kindness. Many cultures make it difficult to accept support because they teach us to be independent or not to burden others. But remember support is a gesture of caring. Be gracious and allow them the opportunity to share their caring with you.
  • Helping others may actually be a form of helping yourself. One way of helping could be to pass on some of these tips.
  • If you are still having trouble coping, ask for professional help.

The 7/20 Day of Remembrance will take place on Saturday at the Aurora Municipal Center and other locations in Aurora. Read more about it at the 7/20 Recovery website:

This website also contains information about the Aurora Strong Community Resilience Center located at 1298 Peoria Street in Aurora, which opened to the public on July 11, 2013. The center offers classes to learn resilience and coping skills in the face of unexpected trauma, and is open 12-8 p.m. (Monday-Friday) and 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. (Saturday).