My grief story: triggers
Hi, I’m Jennifer, and this is the first installment of “my grief story.” I lost my daughter, Sadie, in 2017 after a long fight with cancer. This is not the first time I have grieved a major loss, but it is understandably the most intense.
I have decided to write about my grief for a couple of reasons. I know from talking to others and from first-hand experience that grief can really only be understood by those experiencing it, but I also know that those who love us (the grieving) are desperate to help and to understand. I know that it can be hard for those who are grieving to share, however sharing is something I am open to. These will be my stories where I share my own personal point of view on grief.
We’re all at least a little familiar with emotional “triggers.” It’s pretty common in the vernacular these days and even shows up in the urban dictionary.
Trigger: to cause an intense and usually negative emotional reaction in (someone)
I have discovered that emotional pain associated with my grief can be triggered pretty easily. One of the first times I remember being unexpectedly triggered by my grief was during a typical afternoon out running errands. It was a few months after my daughter, Sadie, died. I was taking a route that I didn’t often frequent. All of a sudden, I saw it. It was the CVS where I picked up methadone for my dying child. Without going into the full story of why my 12 year-old daughter needed methadone (years of narcotic use due to pain from cancer/therapy), the simple fact that she needed it as she died tore me up. Seeing that particular CVS took me back to that pain. Also, since I was no longer distracted by still physically caring for her, I believe that I also felt more in that moment. Not only was I grieving the loss of my daughter, I was grieving for her mom. I was grieving for that part of me that made the decision to use those meds, who had to go pick them up, who had to give them to her around the clock, who had to do all this just to allow her to die as peacefully as possible. I was immediately crying, shaking, and feeling a little disoriented.
For me (and likely for most) there are expected triggers. These can be dates, places, people, songs, smells etc.
The first anniversary of Sadie’s death triggered a month’s long emotional spiral for me.
Seeing Sadie’s friends growing into young adults can trigger some sadness of what should have been.
Going back to the hospital where Sadie was treated triggered an anxiety attack.
Hearing songs that I associate with Sadie trigger immediate sadness.
The smell of her room can sometimes trigger immediate tears.
Since they are more easily anticipated, I’ve found that they are more easily avoided or mitigated. I can prepare myself emotionally to deal with an anniversary OR I can actively avoid driving a certain route that stokes that sadness.
For a while I questioned whether I should avoid these triggers. I somewhat equated that with avoiding my grief as if I couldn’t “heal” if I didn’t let it come. My goal, however, is not to heal from my grief. We have all experienced a time in our lives when “working through” something served a purpose. Maybe we were wronged by another person, had a time when we were afraid, or faced a situation where we failed...our pain from these occasions can often be healed by digging deep and focusing on the pain.
I argue that this type of grief does not need to be healed from. Therefore, I don’t need to face the painful moments when I don’t want to. It is not my goal to not feel the pain of her loss. It is my goal to be a decent human being who can still experience joy and gratitude while walking around with a hole in my heart.
What about the unexpected triggers? First, I expect them to happen, but just never know when. I’ve given myself permission to grieve wherever I am. I’m comfortable being the weird one crying in the room. It doesn’t matter to me if not everyone understands why. I am fortunate to have a community of people around me who care and I have just enough resilience left to make it through the next unexpected trigger.
Triggers: What should you do if you’re the one grieving?
Know it will happen.
Do what feels right to you.
Give yourself permission to turn away (you are not doing any disservice to the person you loved).
Lean in if you want to.
Triggers: What can you do for your loved one?
If they say they are not ready to do that thing (go to a place, see that person, clean out a room, take off a ring), don’t make them or even encourage them to “do it anyway.” Never put your expected timeline on them.
Try to think ahead of when a trigger might be coming for them. Think of birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, major life changes, visits to special places, etc. Help them avoid that pain if they are not open to feeling it (sometimes they will be open to feeling it, but it should never be forced). Choose a different location. Create new traditions. And if nothing else, let them know you are thinking of them.
Special note: As I mentioned above, this is an exercise in me trying to be a decent human being while living with my broken heart. My experiences with grief are unique to me. Nothing that I write here is intended to cover the entire scope of human grief. Please take everything I write about my grief in the tone in which is was created, shared vulnerability with the goal to make life more bearable. This is also not medical advice.