Grief Triggers and Positive Memory: A Continuum
Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley/
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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 cold, 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 rich hues falling like snow and crunching underfoot. And the air has a certain feeling about it, like a mix of 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.
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. With its sensory overload, fall 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 a specific 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 that are often associated with strong emotion interrupt your brain’s regular programming, and 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 eliminating and avoiding 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.
Under a dense fog of emotional malaise in the thick of fall, it is always tricky for me to maintain perspective. Still, I fight the urge to avoid reminders because, although they seem like the enemy during times of darkness, my involuntary memories are usually the exact opposite. You see, it happens often enough that a song, a place, or a face reminds me of something wonderful about my mother – enough so that I would endure any amount of pain 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 always 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.
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.
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19 Comments on "Grief Triggers and Positive Memory: A Continuum"Click here to leave a Comment
Bev October 6, 2021 at 2:35 pm
I lost my husband in June 2021, diagnosed with AML in December, Michael was 57 we were married for 37yrs together for 40 years, I am 61.
Summer time for us was two months in France in a little studio nothing fancy but we had everything in just being together. When the sun comes out and the sky is blue my heart aches knowing we will never enjoy our happy place again, Christmas will be hard, every year in the 20th of December we went to our fav Dublin hotel and had the best time together, no Christmas shopping just relaxing, drinking coffee, people watching from the little decorated windows of a small coffee shop. Every thing about our trip was perfect we had each other. On Christmas Eve we checked out spent the day enjoying Dublin and around 2am we would drive the 2 hour journey back to Belfast ready for Christmas with our 3 daughters our son-in-law and 4 grandchildren, Christmas will never be the same.
Michael and I from we met made Saturdays a special day for adventure, when our children were young we all went on adventure but for many years now we had our own adventures picnics walks at the beach collecting seaglass and shells, swimming in the ocean, forest picnics and walks the list is endless but now as the weekend approaches the knife in my heart is turned continuously grieving the loss of my Michael.
Strange as it may seem after Michael passed it was pointed out to me that by law I was now single, and tho one day I will see Michael in heaven it won’t be as man and wife, this knowledge has truly broken me I can’t get any mind rest at all, I believed the vow Till death us do part meant we would love each other, death may separate us but we will be reunited in heaven as I now realise is not correct. Loosing Michael was the worst day of my life and yet I feel I have lost him all over again completely. We had our issues as every couple does but we loved each other with every beat of our hearts we were inseparable and anyone who knew us or met us even shop assistants etc said they wished they had what we had.
I have Complex Post Traumatic Stress and MS the CPTSD apparently makes grieving much harder more complex as I am living my biggest fear loosing the love of my life.
I exist each day just longing and waiting to see him again I don’t know how I will deal with no marriage in heaven but I need to see him,look into his eyes, feel his strong but gentle arms around me and see his smile hear his voice, everyday is a trigger for me but there are ones that compound the loss of my soul mate.,
Life has no purpose for me I just want to be with Michael.
Sarah M Heister August 14, 2021 at 7:53 am
I sit in hospice and watched the only person who cared about me slip away. My family is all about favorites and I will never be one. He had a heart attack in 2019 and he died a month later. I was there every day all day and night except one. I miss him so much and now my kids are out starting their own families. I feel like I am not needed no more sometimes. We buried him on my birthday and now I hate my birthday. I also said goodbye to my best friend 2 weeks later. Then this spring I said goodbye to my dog Blacky.
Laura Adjey March 15, 2020 at 8:32 am
My darling son died on August 15, 2019… it is the 7 month anniversary this morning. I’m finding the triggers hard to ignore.. they seem to be around every corner and my thoughts seem to always circle back to him and leave me gutted. We have dealt with Christmas and his birthday thus far but I fear that horrifying August morning when I found him, is going to be so difficult. As much as I hate to know others suffer like me, it does bring me some comfort to read your stories and not feel so alone. Thank you.
Cindy May 4, 2022 at 7:11 pm
I am exactly where you were when you wrote your post.
Its been 8 months since I lost my precious son, Blake. He was my everything as I am divorced and he was all I had left. Besides being extremely lost and lonely, I am drowning in memories everywhere I turn. Unfortunately, these memories just break my heart further. I get angry at myself because I avoid as many triggers as possible because I am afraid the sadness will put me over the edge. I just wanted to ask if the memories will eventually become happy? Will I ever be able to smile instead of cry when I see a trigger or have a memory of Blake? Just the fact that I am typing this tears my heart out. I still cannot believe he is really gone. How does anyone survive this? I hope you have found some peace and resolution. It sure feels like that will never happen til I die.
Sheila May 7, 2022 at 10:13 pm
Laura, your words and journey are heartfelt, as I also list my son 8 months ago. The pain has been unimaginable and there are days I still can’t believe I can’t hug, text, enjoying holidays and will miss out on all that was to be. His name was Stephen and he was 28. I have really opened up my consciousness to things I wouldn’t consider before or was closed off too. I read a lot about grief and afterlife and meditate which is something he loved to do so it brings me closer to him. One thing I learned is that losing a child is something I will never get over and that’s normal for the grieving. So I don’t put that pressure on me. I’m just trying now to build a sturdy foundation and a purpose that makes me want to get out of bed everyday. Sometimes I don’t recognize who I am as I navigate my new life. He was the love of my life. I wish you well and join you hand-in-hand as a member of a group of mothers/fathers who have had their heart pulled out. Hugs Sheila
Sheila May 7, 2022 at 10:17 pm
Sorry for the spell check error. It has been an emotional day for me.
*lost not list
*closed of to not too just to name two.
Vanessa November 30, 2019 at 11:35 pm
In my town there are fireworks on November 30, celebrating the beginning of the holidays. I wasn’t expecting to cry when I saw them, but did on remembering the last time on July 1st Canada that I went to visit my mother. .. My mom couldn’t get out much and she looked forward to seeing the fireworks with me. I for some reason was upset about something and stayed in another room. The fireworks came and went and we didn’t share the time enjoying them together. It could have been a lovely
memory but wasn’t. I am so sad. VK
Sharon Sikich November 25, 2019 at 3:11 am
Sharon Sikich November 24,2019
My boyfriend of eighteen years died on February 23,2018. He had a short battle with cancer. He was only 57 years old.
Right after he died, I was an emotional mess. I would cry a lot. And thought my world had come to an end. I loved my boyfriend alot. I have been going to a grief counselor and she has helped me alot. I am getting better and trying to get on with my life. I am 59 years old. And it sucks being single again. I hate being alone. I still deal with grief triggers. I haven’t started dating yet. My heart just isn’t into it. He was my first serious boyfriend. I miss my boyfriend everyday. I wish he was still here. You never really get over the loss of someone you just live with it.
Lynn October 20, 2019 at 5:06 pm
Autumn triggers . My brother died on September 13th. My mother died on October 13, Dad’s birthday was October 15 and he died on October 17th of last year. He made me his executrix and there has been nothing but trouble with the estate. I may as well have lost my remaining sibling for he resembles no one i’ve ever met. Things Dad forgot to or didn’t know enough to take care of keep coming to light and I find myself both missing and being angry with my Dad. And little things trigger memories – he loved cider, and apples, and cheese. It’s just one big heartbreak. I hope …someday …the bad stuff WILL go away but it’s difficult with continued punches to the torso.
Penny Zokaie October 24, 2019 at 1:24 pm
Both of my parents died October 13th, during my favorite time of year. I decided to get married October 10th to help offset the sadness of the deathiversary and it helps tremendously. I find great comfort in identifying my “joy triggers,” which include puppies, nature walks and…please don’t judge, 80’s music. Find your own and give “trigger” new meaning. ??
Ira Stier May 8, 2021 at 3:10 pm
Penny, I was friends with your sister, in liberty. You lived across the street for a short while. I’ve often thought of you both. Please say hello to Patty, and I hope you are well.
Cherilynn October 21, 2016 at 10:39 pm
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
Becky November 7, 2014 at 5:01 pm
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 🙁
patty mcmahanœ October 23, 2014 at 11:11 pm
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
Eleanor November 7, 2014 at 2:19 pm
I can only imagine how hard this time of year must be for you. I’m so sorry for your son’s death and your pain. Hang in there and go easy on yourself.
Henrietta October 23, 2014 at 6:43 am
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….
Liz October 21, 2014 at 11:25 pm
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.
D. Johnson October 21, 2014 at 1:33 pm
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!
Nicole October 21, 2014 at 12:42 pm
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.