Conversations in Grief Blog: Getting Triggered

Rainbow Community Care Team
April 30, 2024 / 5 mins read

Getting Triggered

by Laura Wessels


When the crossing arms go down on the railroad tracks, there's nothing to do but wait out the train. In this month's Conversations in Grief Blog, Rainbow's Chaplain/Bereavement Coordinator, Laura Wessels, shares that it's a similar experience when you are triggered by your grief. You just have to stop and let the train of grief rumble past.

There are times as grievers that we are living well, as far as we can tell, carrying our loss but also feeling joy, being productive, developing new relationships, and even experiencing hope. Out of nowhere, a sight, sound, or smell stops us cold and sparks a memory. Launched backward in time, we find ourselves at the moment of our loved one’s death, feeling their loss anew, hollowed out and devastated.

There are many words for this. Alan Wolfelt calls them “griefbursts,” or even “crazybursts.” Carlene Vester Eneroth, a widow who lost her husband at a young age, names them “grief gremlins.” I described it once as a “shudder of grief.” Perhaps the most recognizable word is “triggers.” It happened to my mother-in-law when she opened a kitchen cupboard and saw the bottle of Tabasco sauce, something she kept for her husband, who loved shaking it on everything. After his death, she knew she would never set the bottle on her table again. Grandparents sat in church watching as a baby boy was baptized. The hope of his baptism collided with their hopelessness; their young grandson had died tragically. A daughter, also a nurse, who cared for her father with Parkinson’s disease, found herself caring for a male patient who had Parkinson’s. She felt triggered, she said to me.

These triggers can leave us reeling, off-kilter, and awash in memories of our loved one. While we can’t avoid them, there are ways to be less blind-sided by grief triggers:

  • Mark your calendar with special days, including birthdays, anniversaries, and lesser holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or even Super Bowl Sunday or the opening day of deer hunting season. Include any special days that only you and your person would have shared. It does help to know that a day is coming.
  • Accept however you are feeling. Grief will always be a part of your life now. It’s not meant to go away, but to ebb and flow. On her podcast, “Terrible, Thanks for Asking,” Nora McInerny, interviewed a grieving daughter who described her grief as “cyclical.” She compared grief to a “pinball machine hitting one emotion after another.” Let yourself process. Instead of resisting your next trigger, invite the memory to wash over you, drenching you both in sorrow and deep love for your person.
  • Designate and protect a place where you can go and lean into your sorrow privately, feeling your feelings in whatever way you need to express them.
  • Designate a person you can call. Talk with them ahead of time about what you will need from them, someone who will listen and join you in your memories.
  • Be compassionate with yourself when you are triggered. Your person was an integral part of your life. Of course, you will be reminded of them in unexpected ways. You get to miss them. You will always love them.

Some triggers or griefbursts leave us sad. But there are also sights, sounds, and memories that fill us with joy. David Kessler calls them “love bursts.” When I browse the book section of a thrift store and spot one of my dad’s favorite authors, I remember my dad and his deep faith. My friend who is grieving the deaths of several family members calls her triggers enjoyable because they invite her to focus on the one she has lost.

Whether the trigger fills you with pain or fills you with love, each one is a reminder that your loved one will not be forgotten. And your love for them grows; your love is what is left.

How have you experienced triggers or love bursts?