Have you been having a good day many months after the death of your loved one and when watching television, see a particular scene or hear a statement, and suddenly you feel the return of sadness and anxiety? Or has a newspaper story of the death of a stranger set off sorrowful memories associated with the death of your loved one?
These and many other seemingly unrelated experiences are commonly the cause of much grieving that can go on for several days. Kim Wencl, whose daughter died in a tragic house fire while at college, had the following experience.
“The bridge collapse in Minneapolis was a trigger for me. It really had nothing to do with my loss (although when my daughter was attending the U of M we traveled it quite frequently, and many of her college friends still live within close proximity to it). But as soon as I heard about it and started to watch the news coverage, I felt almost physically ill and panicky, had difficulty breathing, and experienced immediate and immense feelings of extreme sadness. Despite all of these feelings, I couldn’t get myself to quit watching the coverage-even though after a couple of hours, I realized it was triggering my own grief feelings-which hadn’t bubbled up in almost a year. If you don’t know what a trigger is, (and I don’t think most grieving people do) it is even more unnerving because it comes out of the blue, very quickly, and you don’t understand why it’s happening.”
Here’s what you need to know when something you see, hear, smell or experience brings back the pain of your loss.
1. The experience is normal and common. There is nothing wrong with you. You did not cause the event. It is part of the way we store memories. Sometimes it is the result of unresolved traumatic imprints-highly emotional events that become imbedded in our psyches and our bodies-and may need professional assistance. Both happy and not so happy memories have their triggers. The role of the mind in healing is extremely powerful and at other times extremely limiting. But grief triggers are to be expected. That’s the way memory works.
2. To help defuse the impact of the sudden onset of grief keep telling yourself that what you are experiencing is normal, normal, normal. Say it to yourself: affirming this belief will expand your ability to continue healing. Deal with it by expressing your emotions and finding support persons who understand the phenomena and your need for their listening skills. Regrettably, you may have to educate some of them at this difficult time. Nevertheless, full disclosure of what is happening within can be very useful. Don’t hide your feelings. You are not weak in sharing your plight.
3. Remember that these grief episodes, like all grief responses, have a physical component. You can get a headache, digestive disturbances, feel ill, or not be able to sleep. Thoughts are always transferred to our cells with corresponding physical manifestations. Of course, from the modern perspective of neurochemistry, this also means that joyful and peaceful thoughts can have highly positive effects on your physiology, especially the immune system.
4. Allow the experience to unfold and the pain in your heart to move through and out of you. Here is how Kim put it.
“As to what helped in dealing with that grief trigger experience, I guess the biggest thing was just knowing that what I was experiencing was a grief trigger. Once I had that realization I knew that, if I acknowledged everything I was feeling and just felt it-as opposed to ignoring it or pretending it wasn’t happening-the symptoms would subside, which they did over the course of a day or two.”
The key words in this observation are: acknowledge everything.
Finally, I can’t emphasize enough how individual grief triggers can be. The intensity, extent, and frequency of these events vary immensely among individuals. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the death of your loved one, the emotional investment in the person, and the internal connections made from your precipitating experience-a grief trigger for you may be a complete surprise and thus alarming.
In any event, accepting the experience and not resisting is the best way to disarm and limit the unnecessary suffering that accompanies this loss-related grief response. The transition will require you to shift your thought processes away from focusing on “why me?” to “what can I learn from this opportunity?”
Accepting grief triggers as normal-especially when they come months or years after the death of your loved one-is a manageable and ongoing part of the healing process. We are always healing because we are always dealing with change. And, we bring with us our previous loss experiences to each new challenge. You can meet that challenge.