Grief Triggers: Five Ways to Handle Them

Triggers – a word that is becoming common among those who have experienced loss. A grief trigger is anything that reminds you of your loss. These have the potential to cause a downward spiral or in a strange way bring comfort, as if you just had a visit from the one you loved.

Normally these reminders come as a surprise, making you feel attacked. Without warning, you are transported back to a sea of emotions. Triggers can come through any of the five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. It is amazing, the power from the melody of a song or familiar fragrance can take us back to our trauma in mere moments.

I remember the pain of my first triggers after losing my husband that came when walking through the menswear department and grocery store. They seemed to shout; YOU DON’T NEED TO PASS THIS WAY AGAIN! Oh, how the hot tears flowed and the reality hurt. I desperately wanted to buy him a new shirt or to prepare his favorite meal.

And then there were the times I found myself longing to feel the sensation that came from listening to the sound of his voice or reliving special memories by looking at photographs. If I needed a good cry, turning up “our song” would bring it on. One widow shared the comfort that came from nightly spraying her pillow with his cologne.

In the early days these triggers are all around especially since he was just here. Often these reminders allow for the protective covering of denial. Clothes remain in the closet, his car in the garage, or his cell phone on the dresser, untouched, making you feel as if he will return.

When grief is triggered in the later years, the pain can be more intense because we know that he is not coming back. When it comes to our triggers, we must become more and more prepared to handle them with the right perspective of eternity and acceptance of the story we are currently living (this will take time, and that is normal and okay). Triggers do not operate on a time clock. You would think they fade away over time, yet even decades later they can make an unexpected appearance.

When should you expect a trigger:

  • In the routines of life
  • Important dates on the calendar: holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, and milestones
  • Familiar places
  • Foods and smells
  • Weddings and funerals

How to handle triggers:

  1. Brace for them so you have an action plan when they come.
  2. Feel them but do not nurse them. It’s okay to visit the past that comes with a trigger, but be careful with camping out in this place if the memories bring you down.
  3. Don’t suffer in silence. Triggers cannot be avoided on your grief journey. Share your experience with a trusted counselor, friend, or family member. Talking out your feelings that come with the triggers is helpful.
  4. Understand that they will surprise you but won’t sustain you. The bad news is that if a pleasant emotion is felt through the trigger, the reality is that this sensation unlocks important memories, but these are not your new reality. The good news is if the feeling that comes with a trigger is sad and uncomfortable, it won’t last forever.
  5. Move forward from them, knowing they have the power to defeat you. The enemy of our souls is always looking for an opportune time to bring us down. We must emotionally prepare ourselves for the experience of a trigger even if it is positive.

The reality is that you can always find a trigger if you look for it. I believe the challenge of the apostle Paul concerning life, in general, is also helpful when we experience loss:

“More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…” (Philippians 3:8 NASB)

Even in the deepest pain brought on by your triggers, may you come to know the value of Jesus’ love for you more and more.