Grief Triggers

 

By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
pat@tearsoup.com

 

I have always found “triggers” to be a difficult part of grieving.  Do you know what I mean?  I’m thinking about the little reminders that in an instant put you into a deep grieving space where you are distracted from what you were doing and suddenly find yourself in that abyss where nothing else matters but your pain. Get used to it. Triggers are capable of ambushing you without your consent and at any moment.  I have had many such “trigger moments” since my mother’s death just three months ago.  It’s like she secretly planted these landmines when I wasn’t looking, knowing they would be there for me to stumble over when I least expected it.  What an unkind thing for a mother to do to a daughter who loved her to death!

Sights, sounds and smells are high on the trigger list.  It’s almost as if our senses are out there doing the searching for us without our knowing it.  I can remember the time I was doing a night shift as a young hospital nurse when an intern came onto my ward to check on a patient.  As he stood beside me at the nurses’ station I said, “Old Spice.”  He said, “No.  Wrigley’s Spearmint”.  To which I replied, “You smell like my grandfather”.  In an instant I was taken back for a short but sweet connection to a past that I hadn’t thought about for a long time.

As humans we long for connections with each other.  The death of a loved one does not diminish that desire, but actually intensifies it.  We want what we cannot have.  So grief finds a way to get that connection back.  Our job as grievers is to learn how to be thankful for the experiences that keep us close to our departed loved ones without being tortured by those experiences. The reconnection may come suddenly when you hear his favorite song, or pass by the hospital where you have painful memories of her last days, or go down an aisle in the supermarket that has your loved one’s favorite cereal on display. Bad or good, the ride down memory lane can fill you with strong emotions and drop you to your knees.  (Who ever knew a box of Cheerios could have such power!)  The trick is to let such triggers become opportunities for you to continue to do your grief work, without making you miserable.

In my own grieving I’m learning not to run from these triggers.  They help me keep focused on my grief and they have carried me to a deeper place than I could have found without them. I have become grateful for them as a way to remember my mom.  My siblings don’t have the same triggers. Unlike me they didn’t have her in their houses every day these past four years, so they don’t have a stockpile of these surprise “souvenirs” to throw them off guard. (Though I suspect they have some of their own.)  I sometimes resented that I was having all the “fun” of having this terrorist in my midst.  I was willing to share her with my siblings, but she would have none of that.  She was perfectly content to heap all of her narcissistic self on me alone.  She felt secure here and didn’t want to leave her comfort zone.

I’ve already discovered that the edge on these triggers is not so sharp anymore.  When I saw her pajamas sitting in the pile of laundry by my bedroom door the other day I didn’t burst into tears.  I didn’t need to clutch them and see if I could still smell her in them.  Rather, I thought, “She loved those old raggedy pj’s”.  I smiled as I remembered giving her a pretty pair of pajama’s for her birthday last year and how she told me to return them to the store.  The ones she had suited her just fine.  And then my eyes looked down the hallway and I caught a glimpse of her heading toward the bathroom in her old pajamas with her bottoms half down in an effort to make it to the toilet just in time. Sweet.

I like my mother more now that she’s dead.  The triggers have allowed me to see a lighter side of our relationship that I wasn’t able to enjoy when she was alive.  When she was with me I was too busy trying to keep her strong personality from sucking all the life out of me.  Immediately after her death I wanted my abuser back knowing that I could be a better daughter this time.  Now I no longer need her back to prove that fact. What a relief!

Loving her from a distance has always been easier.  It continues on that way. 

She told me that I’d miss her.  She was right (again).