Unexpected Triggers in Grief

Abby EmbryDeath and Dying

Outside my window I am serenaded by the raindrops, which, in these quiet isolating times, can offer a reflective atmosphere for checking in with yourself.

Today’s subject is a heavy one. We are discussing “triggers.” As we move through these lessons and conversations in grief as a virtual group, talk about “triggers” comes up often. Triggers are sensory experiences that can happen at any time of the day, which cause us to have a rush of unexpected grief emotions. You may find this definition to be quite broad, but it has to be broad–as triggers are incredibly specific to each individual, as well as the response to those triggers. When you receive bereavement counseling, one of the tasks is to identify some of those triggers, and to find ways to respond that feel helpful and good to you. No one can tell you what these triggers will be (this is the reason why I do not offer a list of examples). You will most likely be surprised by what they are! Below I will briefly share some thoughts on grief triggers, which we will discuss in more detail tomorrow. I also offer information on mindfulness exercise at the end of this blog, which we will be doing as part of tomorrow’s activity in group.

Experiencing triggers are a normal part of grief.

Much of grief work is in learning that what you are experiencing is normal, expected, and a natural part of grieving. When you have an unexpected wave of deep sadness, or are transported back into a memory, even of a happy time; you can question progress in your “grief” process. If this happens in public, where society has yet to normalize crying in public, you can feel as if you have been taken off course. But this is no course. The only “course” grief work would have you follow is the one which keeps you safe and invested in your life and well being. Sometimes, a good cry in public following a trigger is part of that work, it can even be crucial.

Triggers are deeply personal, but sharing is helpful.

You may want to minimize your triggers as well, saying they are silly or small, but acknowledge to yourself that they are telling you something about yourself, and about your relationship with your loved one that was unique. In a safe space with a trusted loved one, it can be helpful to verbalize what you experienced, what the trigger was, specifically what feelings and memories came up for you. Although they are deeply personal, speaking them out loud may offer new insights into yourself.Triggers can bring up layered emotions. The word “trigger” has negative and even aggressive sounding connotations. But I feel it is not helpful to always lump grief work into a negative category. Sometimes these triggers bring layered emotions that you might see as both positive and negative, on top of each other. These layered emotions are hard to describe, we really do not have many good words for them. One word that tends to come to my mind is “bittersweet,” but it does not speak fully to the depth of these layered emotions.

Seek support and be gentle to yourself.

Anyone who has experienced grief has experienced a trigger of some sort. They are a necessary part of your brain’s hard work in understanding this new world you are in, a different world, where your senses must interpret with new meaning sights, smells, tastes, sounds, even textures. This is where you must seek support and be gentle with yourself. You will not grieve better by triggering yourself on purpose, you will not grieve better by avoiding all triggers. This work, as mentioned in a previous blog, is a dance of touching down into those feelings, and fleeting away for moments of respite and recovery. Take care to do that in a gentle and loving way to yourself.One of those gentle and loving ways to care for yourself in grief is to practice moments of calm reflection to check in with your body and your mind. In our grief groups we use the last 30 minutes of this session to practice a mindfulness exercise.

Check out this page by the Mayo Clinic on mindfulness exercises to see the benefits and varieties you can try. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/mindfulness-exercises/art-20046356

Give one of these techniques a try and join us if you can tomorrow. Maybe let the gentle sounds of the rain guide you into yourself. We will discuss how it went for you, and I will lead you through a brief exercise at the end of the session! I look forward to showing you how even a few minutes of checking in with your body can help build coping skills when those triggers come during your day.Our group is every Tuesday at 2 PM, and generally lasts about one and a half hours. Click the link below for more information on how to join us, everyone is welcome, no registration required.

If you would like to schedule one-on-one support with me via Zoom, please email me at: bereavement@williamsburghospice.org

https://mailchi.mp/7a65a64d9bef/virtualsupportgroup

Abby Embry
Chaplaincy Director

Photo Credit: Carlo LaFiandra, HHSCW Volunteer

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