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How to deal with grief triggers long after the death of a loved one

Have you had a good day many months after the death of your loved one and when watching television, seeing a particular scene or hearing a statement, suddenly feel sadness and anxiety return? Or has a newspaper story about the death of a stranger triggered painful memories associated with the death of your loved one?

These and many other seemingly unrelated experiences are commonly the cause of much grief that can last for several days. Kim Wencl, whose daughter died in a tragic fire in her home while she was in college, had the following experience.

“The bridge collapse in Minneapolis was a trigger for me. It really had nothing to do with my loss (although when my daughter attended U of M we traveled quite often, and many of her college friends still live nearby). But as soon as I found out and started watching the news coverage, I felt almost physically sick and panicked, had difficulty breathing, and experienced immediate and immense feelings of extreme sadness. For almost a year. If you don’t know what a trigger is (and I don’t think most grieving people know this), it’s even more unnerving because it comes out of nowhere, so fast, and you don’t understand why it’s happening.”

Here’s what you need to know when something you see, hear, smell, or experience brings back the pain of your loss.

1. The experience is normal and common. There is nothing wrong with you. You did not cause the event. It is part of the way we store memories. Sometimes it is the result of unresolved traumatic traces, highly emotional events that become embedded in our psyche and body, and may require professional assistance. Both happy and not-so-happy memories have their triggers. The mind’s role in healing is extremely powerful and at other times extremely limiting. But triggers for complaints are expected. This is how memory works.

2. To help mitigate the impact of the sudden onset of grief, tell yourself that what you are experiencing is normal, normal, normal. Tell yourself: Affirming this belief will expand your ability to continue healing. Cope by expressing your emotions and finding supportive people who understand the phenomenon and your need for your listening skills. Unfortunately, you may have to educate some of them at this difficult time. However, full disclosure of what is going on inside can go a long way. Don’t hide your feelings. You are not weak in sharing your situation.

3. Remember that these grievance episodes, like all responses to grievances, have a physical component. You may have a headache, digestive problems, feel sick or not be able to sleep. Thoughts are always transferred to our cells with corresponding physical manifestations. Of course, from the modern perspective of neurochemistry, this also means that happy and peaceful thoughts can have very positive effects on your physiology, especially your immune system.

4. Allow the experience to unfold and the pain in your heart to move in and out of you. That’s how Kim put it.

“In terms of what helped me deal with that grievance trigger experience, I think the most important thing was knowing that what I was experiencing was a grievance trigger. Once I realized that, I knew that if I acknowledged everything I was feeling and just felt it, instead of ignoring it or pretending it wasn’t happening, the symptoms would go away, which they did over the course of a day or two.”

The keywords in this comment are: acknowledge everything.

Finally, I cannot stress enough how individual complaint triggers can be. The intensity, extent, and frequency of these events vary immensely between individuals. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the death of your loved one, the emotional investment in the person, and the inner connections made from your precipitating experience, a grievance trigger for you can come as a complete surprise and therefore alarming.

In either case, accepting the experience and not resisting it is the best way to defuse and limit the unnecessary suffering that accompanies this loss-related grievance response. The transition will require you to shift your thought processes away from focusing on “why me?” to “what can I learn from this opportunity?”

Accepting grief triggers as normal, especially when they come months or years after the death of your loved one, is a manageable and ongoing part of the healing process. We are always healing because we are always dealing with change. And we bring our previous experiences of loss with us to each new challenge. You can meet that challenge.

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