In the previous post about coping with grief attacks, I mentioned that the starting point of the grief journey is acute grief. Looking back now, I can share that the priority for this phase of the grief journey is surviving. This post explores types of grief triggers, how to identify and cope with them.
During this first leg of grief, I’ve found the key to navigating through it is to express and accept all the strong emotions that arise. I found ‘everything and anything’ triggered my grief. My grief response was a strong cocktail mix, including anxiety, envy, sleeplessness, guilt, loneliness, and deep sorrow.
These emotions were constant in the early days, weeks, and months of my grief, and they felt like an unbearable weight on my shoulders. They came in intense waves that were consistently washing me off my feet and frequently drawing me in.
I experienced sudden, intense feelings of distress and other strong emotions of grief that changed rapidly as often as ‘one swallows spit.’ Likewise, I would be overcome with a deep sense of loss for the experiences my loved one never got to experience. I also felt a deep sense of loss for those that I could no longer share with her.
I experienced some little pockets of breathing spaces from the overwhelming emotions about five months into my grief journey.
I momentarily forgot that grief is a long process to endure. It’s not a sprint dash, and we don’t get over it as if it were a surmountable object. I misinterpreted the little pockets of relief as graduating from those emotions. Sometimes, something would happen, and I would wonder, “What just happened? I thought I was over this.”
I’ll like to share some experiences to dive deeper into how I identified my grief triggers.
Sarah, one of our friends, turned into a family member spent the day with us. We were having a wonderful time as we exchanged stories, laughed and reminisced about our loved one, Chidinma.
We observed how fast Anisa finished her big bottle of juice. We laughed out loud as it reminded us of how Chidinma would ask for a sip of your drink, say a freshly opened chilled bottle of Power Malt. That request of “let me have a sip” always ended up in more than half of the drink gone. She would always say, “ahn han now I only had a sip with a full grin.”
Sarah had asked what we would like to eat, and before I could respond, Anisa had signalled noodles. I had negotiated with Sarah that I wanted to eat separately as I didn’t want to be short rationed by Anisa, who also loves noodles.
Off she went to prepare the noodles. Twenty minutes later, Sarah returned with a bowl of piping hot noodles. I savoured the angelic steam rising from the noodles as she approached me with my bowl of noodles. I was looking forward to tucking into the bowl of noodles.
What happened next was shocking! Like a candle that was hurriedly blown out, my mood immediately changed as soon as I received my bowl of noodles. The meal triggered my grief. I became irritated by the smell of the meal. It felt like my emotional weather had turned from a beautiful summer into a hurricane.
I tried forcing myself to eat. I thought about the effort that Sarah had put into preparing the meal and simply couldn’t eat. I bolted the living room and returned to my dark grief den in my room. This experience haunted me for days.
Another time, I thought I would pop to a supermarket, Lidl, in town, to do some grocery shopping on a Sunday afternoon. I got there at 3 pm, picked a trolley and began taking and placing items in the trolley.
Halfway into my shopping, with no warning, I felt this strange sensation. First, it felt like someone had punched me hard in the chest; then I welled up, and tears were flowing freely from my eyes. I felt like sobbing and wailing in the middle of the supermarket.
I couldn’t leave the supermarket to sit in my car because the supermarket was due to close in 10 minutes. I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself by having a meltdown in the middle of the supermarket.
I hurried through the rest of the shopping, puffed up, and at the edge of bursting into tears. I couldn’t wait to leave the supermarket, but there was a delay at the checkout counter.
I eventually paid, hurriedly loaded the shopping into the boot of my car on this summer Sunday afternoon. As soon as I shut the door to the car, tears flowed freely with inaudible howling as my aching heart yearned for my loved one.
I can go on and on to share other experiences with you. I wondered what exactly was causing these experiences. What was triggering my grief and how do people manage grief triggers?
Those reminders, often unexpected that can cause a wave of grief to wash over you or even knock you down, are grief triggers. You become distracted from what you were doing and find yourself in pain. The sudden and intense feelings of distress, pain and sorrow are known as grief attacks. Many things can trigger grief, but they all bring up memories associated with loss.
Examples of Grief Triggers
I have found from my experience that we can put grief triggers into two groups. The first group of grief triggers are those that may be obvious and easy to expect like:
- Milestones. A wedding invitation or a graduation invitation can trigger grief-related emotions. You’re likely to feel sorrow over your loss during the occurrence of these key milestones in life, even if you thought you had your grief under control.
- Special occasions. When a loved one has passed away, the occasion of special days throughout the year like birthdays, Fathers’/Mothers/Childrens’ Day, Easter, Christmas, New Year, change in season, holidays, and anniversaries can cause significant pain. For some time to come, these constant reminders will probably cause grief.
- Hearing a song or seeing a TV show. Going to or seeing a photo of a place. It may not matter how many years have passed since your loved one died. You may still experience grief whenever you hear a particular song that they dedicated to you, seeing the show or visiting the place that reminds you of them.
- Smells or sounds. It is possible to revert to grief over your loss on the scent of a particular fragrance or hearing children playing. There are certain sounds and smells that bring back fond memories, like the scent of someone you loved, the aroma of their favourite meal, or the sound of children laughing and playing.
- Lost opportunities. Performances, sports events, father/daughter or mother/son dances, vacations – these all call attention to your loss. Whenever you experience the death of a spouse or child, your losses may be amplified.
- Hearing a news report or being informed of someone who died.
The other group of grief triggers can occur at any time, catching you off guard and eliciting intense emotions. You might encounter these triggers when you aren’t expecting them because they are not obvious and rarely follow a set pattern.
You may unexpectedly encounter situations, or someone could say something that’s not relevant to them. Still, it can have a significant effect on you because it reminds you of your loved one. It could be walking down a supermarket aisle or seeing swans in the river.
These grief triggers remind me that the journey of grief is not a linear process but an endless series of ups and downs. It is an unpredictable path, sometimes with a sudden change in emotion.
How am I learning to cope with grief triggers?
There are many ways people deal with triggers, whether it is buying a card and writing what they want to say to their loved one, planning a celebration with family, or taking a little time for themselves.
I am still confident that there is no ‘right thing to do in such difficult moments. However, may I encourage you to do something that feels kind and nourishing for you? The following are things I have found helpful in coping with my grief triggers.
Identify the trigger
Because triggers can be unexpected or completely unknown, there is no way to predict when something will trigger strong emotional reactions in you. When you are just surviving your day, dealing with this can be highly challenging.
I found it helpful to note when something made me feel emotional to understand my triggers better. By doing so, I can normalise my experiences and take care of myself as best I can.
Accept your feelings
I am now familiar with the different feelings when I have been triggered by grief, meaning that I am learning to brace as much as I can for the next one. I have found accepting my loss, feelings, and emotions helpful in understanding when a grief attack sneaks up on me.
Anticipate and Minimise
Managing triggers and reducing their impact can be easier if you plan when you know you will be somewhere they frequently occur. I have found it helpful to anticipate, and when possible, minimise my grief triggers. Especially for the common grief triggers by identifying when I am experiencing grief-related feelings.
For example, with special occasions, I planned for some and avoided some; I also organise myself to expect my grief triggers and minimise them as I go about my daily activities.
My other grief trigger coping strategies include
Learning as much as I can about grief, staying as close to the ground (lying on the floor) where possible, an escape plan or a “safe” person to call when it happens, etc.
The primary way I am learning to cope with grief triggers and grief attacks is by asking myself one crucial question:
I asked myself, “Tolulope, what are some ways you can look after yourself at this moment?”
I suppose I am also asking you the same question: “What could you do to take care of yourself right now?”
I’d love to share your coping with grief story too.
I intend to expand the blog and resources on the website to include stories of other people who have lost a loved one, not limited to losing a spouse. I’d love to hear about how you handled grief. Would you please let me know if you would like to share your story.
I am also open to having anyone anonymised if that’s your preferred option. Complete the contact us form with the text “I would like to share my story.”
To Be Continued Next Wednesday…
I would like to hear from you. Would you please share your thoughts, comments and reflections below? Thank you.