I learned that this question is one of the top grief searches on Google. I’m going to answer it in my voice and to my experience. I ramble a little.
I have been triggered in my grief in public, private, by strangers and those who know me best. I believe there are meaningful triggers as well as bitter and painful triggers. For me it is difficult to always distinguish between trauma triggers and grief triggers. They overlap and stand alone equally.
During the first year after losing Marley and my dad I used yoga as a way to practice being in this moment and as a tool to help me keep breathing. Yoga was not new to me and there was also comfort in being in familiar company and moving in ways that felt familiar to my unfamiliar body and spirit. One morning the teacher challenged the class to “consider how lucky we all are”… I was triggered and spent the rest of the class cursing him in my mind. After class I encouraged him to consider who was in the room and know that it was impossible to determine if any of us were or felt lucky. I shared with him that I was one of the unluckiest people he would meet and that I was triggered with his projection of loose and trendy luck. He totally got it. He seemed to appreciate the feedback and I felt validated.
Other people have told me I am lucky (for various reasons). Each time I am triggered. Each time my blood boils and I lose the ability to think clearly. How dare somebody tell me I am lucky? Since when do we need to project this status on to anyone? It matters not where the luck is pointed, i.e. work, vacation, new baby. I am triggered because my ultimate measurement will always be the loss of my child. Everything in my life, everything, is compared to what should have been and is no longer. My life, with my daughter alive.
If you are not yet a grieving person (we will all be grievers someday, it’s the human condition) I challenge you to reshape the language you use . Perhaps you try: I’m so glad … is working for you or I was relieved to learn that you … or I wish I had a work opportunity like this one… These are statements anyone, especially those in the trenches of grief, can stomach more easily than anything about luck. When you are suffering from grief or trauma a lack of control is often at the center of your anxiety. Luck, as we all know is not in our control and is handed out arbitrarily by the luck gods. It is a trigger of feeling out of control.
Hearing others talk about their living children. Especially children who are close to the age of Marley. Yikes. This is a thorny ball of triggers. There is so much work here for me and I continue to work and work on how to be present in the lives of kids I love, in the lives of their parents and not be angry/jealous/resentful at them for the missing child in my life. I have to have limits and boundaries. I am grateful to have enough understanding families in my life to maintain those limits without causing conflict. It’s always a trigger. It always burns with heartache. It’s also inescapable and part of living and loving. Here I find holding both sadness and joy is the emotional work. I find that crying after leaving kids Marley’s age and even silently raging for a minute to be a part of my process. I try to keep perspective. When I hear something like “I’m busy snuggling and reading to my kiddo” my knee jerk reaction is anger and jealousy and “don’t they know I don’t want to hear it??!!” However, even in a triggered state and with dedication and intention, I find the love. Love I have for them, their children, for my children and the opportunities I have to be with them snuggled and reading.
Hearing “I couldn’t survive the loss of a child”. I am guilty of this exact statement. The year before Marley died I was working closely with a friend and colleague who had suddenly and recently lost her son. I wonder how many times she had to hear me say this exact thing…how many times did she get triggered? She never said anything and maybe this wasn’t the same trigger for her as it is me, but, I can’t help but wonder and be sorry that I had ever said such a thing. Why? It does seem innocent and likely true for most. The real truth is that I couldn’t survive either but I didn’t have a choice. Our son needed me and I knew it with my whole being. There is self judgement triggered when I hear someone say this now- like something is wrong with me, or my grief, because I have survived and continued to live.
How I recover when I am activated varies in method and in duration. Some recovery is quick and familiar. Other times, I am knocked off my toothpick for days or even weeks. I say toothpick because sometimes if feels to me that my grief is like toothpicks stacked end to end and one slight wind can send the whole thing crashing. So, recovery is often a lot about the story I am telling myself. Was this trigger intentional (almost never)? I start with radical self compassion. I start with allowing the feelings I have to have value. This step stops the battle in my mind for should and should nots. It’s more efficient to feel the feeling and move on from it than it is to sit and battle having felt it in the first place. Then I use my tools to bring me to this moment. A big part of being triggered is the loss of control, triggering the initial emotions of my grief and trauma. Using my tools like intentional breathing, mindfulness and my Healing Circle are ways in which I can be brought back into this moment and deactivate.
I am interested to know what others do to manage their grief triggers.
If you’ve seen one grieving person, you’ve seen one grieving person.