Grief Triggers and Positive Memory: A Continuum

Central New York, where I grew up, overachieves when it comes to cold weather seasons.   I won’t even get started on winter, but I will take a few moments to ruminate on fall.

As soon as the calendar hits September the air grows cool and the green trees of summer blossom into vibrant orange, red and yellow bouquets.  Walk down the street and you are surrounded by leaves in robust hues falling like snow and crunching underfoot. There’s just something in the air, as though it’s been infused with romance, nostalgia and a touch of melancholy

In my 33 years, I have amassed quite a few fall-related memories.  First days of school, homecoming, pumpkin carving, leaf pile jumping – if these were the only things that had ever happened in fall, my memories from September thru November would be picturesque yet typical.  grave

But my mother died in the fall, on a crisp October New York morning, and now it seems I will never experience the sights, smells, and feelings of fall in quite the same way.  In the scrapbook of my mind memories of hayrides, Halloween, and apple picking play second string to goodbyes, red-eyed family members, graveyards, sadness, and longing. For me fall, with its sensory overload and bewitched air quality, is a landmine of grief triggers.

I couldn’t find an actual definition for ‘grief trigger’ so I’m going to go ahead and define it for you.  A grief trigger is anything that brings up memories related to a loss. Triggers may be obvious and easy to anticipate – like a birthday or a holiday – or they may be surprising – like spotting someone who looks like your loved one in a crowd. A grief trigger might tie to an obvious memory or emotion or it may be something that flashes into consciousness and merely leaves you with a sense of sadness and yearning.

Grief triggers are troubling because they open the floodgate for involuntary autobiographical memories. These are the memories that pop into your head without any effort on your part to recall them. They might hit you out of nowhere as you’re driving down the street, sitting at your desk at work, or while you’re microwaving popcorn. Many of these memories are innocuous while others, especially those associated with deceased loved ones, can leave you with a veritable range of feelings.

To clarify, these memories aren’t entirely random and don’t actually come out of nowhere; usually a sight, sound, song, smell, word, or another memory triggers them. These memories interrupt your brain’s regular programming and, because strong emotion can cause a memory to imprint firmly and vividly in your mind, the intrusion may be happy-happy-joy-joy or it may make you feel like you’ve been hit in the gut.

For those who’ve recently lost a loved one, knowing these triggers are out there can cause a fair amount of anxiety. You might fear being blindsided by reminders of your loved one, their death, and their absence, especially right after a loss when your emotions are raw and labile.  Some grievers will respond by trying to eliminate and avoid reminders such as objects, people and places; others will try and battle their way through, growing less and less embarrassed by each public outburst of emotion.

In the thick of fall, under a dense fog of emotional malaise, it is always difficult for me to maintain perspective.  Still, I fight the urge to fortify myself against the reminders because, although during times of darkness they seem like the enemy, my involuntary memories are usually the exact opposite. It happens often enough that a song, a place, or a face reminds me of something wonderful about my mother.  Often enough that I would endure any amount of bad to remember the good.

Memories are where our loved ones continue to live after they’re gone; this is why we hold onto objects that remind us of them and go to places where they feel near. True, when someone we love dies we are forevermore at risk of their memory triggering aftershocks of the pain. But inversely, if we let them, such reminders may also fill us with warmth and comfort. In time you may even find that the very “grief triggers” that once caused you sadness now fill you with a sense of love and remembrance.

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October 5, 2018

8 responses on "Grief Triggers and Positive Memory: A Continuum"

  1. Everyone deals with grief in their own way so don’t doubt what stage of healing your at on bonfire night. If having some time to grieve your father makes you feel better, that’s okay. i know i’m a little bit late on a reply but i hope you are doing well. stay strong <3 cheers

  2. In England we have ‘Bonfire night’ – every 5th November everyone buys and sets off fireworks (and the government and local council put on free fireworks displays and bonfire in the parks) to remember Guy Fawkes, a man who once tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. My father died November 4th the day before bonfire night, six years ago, he committed suicide. Unfortunately this has changed bonfire night for me forever. As bonfire night is just a week past Halloween this whole time of year is a huge trigger. The trick or treaters, the darker nights, the cold weather kicking in and the leaves falling – this used to be my favourite time of year but since his passing I hate it. I no longer partake in any firework celebrations – don’t go to any displays or buy any fireworks of my own. I pretty much stay in and mope about until it’s over but the bangs of the fireworks (almost continuous from about 5pm to 11pm on bonfire night) trigger all the bad memories and emotions for me. The writer of this article says that fall reminders her of her mum and whilst she remembers bad times, she also remembers good. I don’t have that – I remember my dad throughout the rest of the year in a nostalgic, loving, happy way. I am accepting of his death and at a stage, 6 years on, where I am okay with it and can remember my dad in a positive way – laughing at funny memories and remembering good times. But this time of year only brings upset and misery to me as this only triggers memories of his actual death, passing, funeral etc. All the emotion, the shock, the pain, the disbelief, the utter emptiness and loneliness of losing him, the sheer ache inside of so desperately desperately wanting them back, just to touch them or smell them or hear their voice one more time, the terror at knowing deep down you’ll never ever see them again and no amount of tears or sobbing or begging will change that – just the finality of it all, it all floods back to me every single November time and bonfire night. Every year I honestly feel as though I’ve just this minute lost him all over again. No matter how many years pass and how much I am accepting and okay with his passing and otherwise able to lead a normal healthy day to day life without my dad, every bonfire night without fail it’s like going right back to that night and as though I’ve just been told all over again that he’s really gone. It really is like being punched in the gut. You think you’ve dealt with something, and to all intents and purposes, you have, but one trigger and boom, your right back to that day, right back to square one. It’s very sad to me because as a child, bonfire night was a big deal to my dad and to our family. We had a tradition of dad going out to buy the fireworks the day before and then we’d get home from school and have our dinner while we waited patiently for dad to get home from work and have his. Then we get all wrapped up with heavy coats and wellies and hats and scarves and gloves because it was always freezing cold and almost always raining! And we’d go to the park across the road from our house, always to the same secluded spot, with nobody around, and me and my mum and sister and brother would sit on a wall opposite a piece of grass and dad would be at the grass in charge of letting the fireworks off one by one for our very own private family show, and then we’d all go home and have dessert and light sparklers in the back yard! Then we’d go up to my bedroom, a converted attack, and watch everyone else’s millions of fireworks going off for a free show out of the skylight until mum made us go to bed! It was a family tradition and such a special time, but now that’s been ruined in a way because bonfire night and fireworks bring too much pain to ever enjoy – all the more so because it’s just a huge reminder not just of the day dad died, but the tradition and memories and happiness associated with that night that are gone. My dad’s ashes are actually scattered on a tree behind the wall we used to sit on in that park for our private family firework displays. Year round I love going to that park and taking my dogs and walking past that tree and smiling as I remember the happy bonfire night tradition of our family. But on bonfire night itself, because it’s such a trigger to remember the day he died, I can’t remember any of those happy times without getting even more upset 🙁

  3. My son died from suicide by gun on this past thanksgiving day..it was snowing a lot and I’m have a very hard time with this he was only 24

  4. The scent of a Lily on a midsummer’s day, the colour of foxgloves, one on each of my daughter’s fingers, the rich sweet heat of English summer hedgerows, twined with honeysuckle and meadowsweet…my 7 year old daughter Lily died at midsummer and the that season is filled with triggers of her last days on earth. Beautiful post, thankyou, and blessings on you as you traverse autumn….

  5. My sister Jennifer died suddenly on November 18, 2013. She was 45 years old. We are getting close to the first anniversary. There have been so many hard times since that day. But one of the most difficult things is that all the good times and memories are now tinged or even overshadowed with deep sadness. Perhaps this will change as time marches on. But right now that doesn’t seem possible. I am her older sister by only a year and a half. All my childhood memories and many if my adult memories involve her.

  6. Thank you! I was/am concerned about terrible childhood memories and the loss of mental functions that come with dementia & Alzheimer’s. Good to know that it is usually pleasant memories that are recalled. You have given me more usable, relevant information in the last week than my doctor has given me in years!

  7. My brother died at the end of September… And in here in Ohio, we also have a wonderful “changing of the seasons” in fall. Fall has been THE most difficult for myself as well as other members of my family. My brother LOVED the fall. He was an avid hunter and always looked forward to getting his first deer or turkey (which he was looking forward to the day he died.. The first day of turkey season started the next day). So hunting now is a trigger for my step dad. My nephew’s birthday is in the fall. Wishing my brother would have been able to experience each one, is a trigger. And my brother was such a family guy. So any gathering we all get together (especially thanksgiving) triggers something in all of us. We miss him so much but really try to honor him for who he was.. And try to do our best to keep his memory alive during those times, which helps.

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