I preface this entire post with this: I am not formally credentialed to be advising anyone through grief. Having only lost a few significant people in my life, death and grief are actually unnatural topics for me. With that said, I’ve been wanting to write about emotional triggers and offer informal advice for anyone who, like me, has struggled with these before…
Triggers are not easy! They can be predictable or unpredictable, obvious or disguised, simple or complex, light or heavy, convenient or inconvenient. Triggers are also very personal. An emotional trigger for me might mean absolutely nothing to my husband, my friends, or other parents who have lost their babies. Triggers also evolve; so what carries little significance now could weigh heavily later on, and vice versa.
Just a few of mine include showering (that’s when E typically woke up and it was the best part of my day); holding my stomach (a sense of comfort when I was pregnant); Sam Smith’s music (it was like E had a party every time I played this!); yoga (my pregnancy go-to workout); sleeping restlessly (like the night before we lost our baby); cherry flavored soda (what I drank in effort to wake him up the next day); laying on the floor (I did this alone in my office, also in effort to wake him up); parental complaints/humor (because I simply do not relate right now); pregnancy announcements (obvious); and doctor’s offices (obvious). You get the gist. It’s all over the place and any one of these could elicit joy, tears, pride, isolation, anger – I never know!
The above detail isn’t disclosed to gain pity, but rather to show just how random and vast triggers can be. And because they can surface some pretty intense emotions at any time, triggers can be pretty difficult handle. Through counseling, research, and my own experiences, I’ve gained some insights that may be useful to anyone trying to cope:
- Don’t expect to know your own triggers. Memories are tied to conscious or subconscious sights, smells, sounds, touch, associations, etc. Furthermore, your sensitivities will vary by degree and may also evolve depending on where you are with grief. As time passes and you begin to process grief differently, your response to triggers will too. It’s okay if you can’t predict or control it!
- Don’t expect others to tip-toe around your triggers. You can’t keep up with it, so how can they? Grief is life altering but you cannot expect everyone to alter their words and actions to accommodate. There will be plenty of times a conversation comes up or a comment is made that is triggering. Your friends and family cannot possibly know what these might be from day to day. It’s their job to take care of you, but it’s your job to speak up when you need to, let it roll when it makes sense, and set boundaries if need be. Keep their intentions in mind and be aware that you’re all navigating this experience together.
- Give it time, or not. Triggers can come from any where at any time. Take a step back and consider whether or not it’s time to process it. My counselor taught me an analogy that is helpful: Decide if it stays in the room with you or not. If it stays, how long does it get to be there? If it’s not the right time, you can choose to dismiss it and come back to it later.
- Get curious and look inward. Emotions are intended to teach us something about ourselves. So if you’re reacting emotionally, turn inward and dig a little deeper to explore why you may have having that response. It could be a guide to what’s unresolved that may require a little more love and attention.
- Protect yourself. It’s okay to guard yourself from triggers or trigger-heavy social events. You’re already dealing with so much, why challenge yourself if it’s not time to? If it has potential to be tough, jump in and suggest an alternative or rain check for next time! Your friends and fam will understand and respect your needs. In return, you should be okay with them proceeding. This may feel isolating, but try to remember you really aren’t alone and the circumstance really isn’t permanent.
Overall, just know that while triggers are inescapable they can be a good indication of what you need. Take it to heart, but take your time and take it easy. It’s okay to protect yourself and only allow for the challenge of triggers when you have the capacity to do so.