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.
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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