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Episode 35: Dealing with Triggered Grief

Updated: Jan 16, 2023

Grief is a long process to endure when you lose someone you love. In Living With Hospice's fourth grief-centric episode, Mitch addresses the topic of grief triggers and how they can bring up that pain of loss and other emotions, sometimes even years later. While some may be very obvious and predictable, like anniversaries and such, others can hit you out of left field and leave you feeling sad all over again. Mitch provides strategies on what to do when this happens and how to continue to heal through the grief journey.


"Grief acknowledged is grief that is managed. Grief that you resist, is grief that persists."


Hello and welcome to another episode of Living With Hospice. Come on in, grab some coffee or some juice, pull up a chair. Today we're going to talk about something that affects all of us, renewed or triggered grief. We've covered grief in three other episodes describing when it's okay to start grieving, and actually when do we start grieving, as well as the entire grief process.

Today we're going to talk about renewed grief. Grief does not have an expiration date. And grief comes back to us from time to time. Certain things trigger us to go back and revisit situations or events or experiences and we revisit some of those old feelings of loss.

Before we get started, let me remind you that I am not a doctor or a nurse or licensed therapist I am however, someone who has experienced in device situations, most of my adult life, I am the primary caregiver for my adult son - or was - and his entire end of life journey along with my wife Lori. I've been involved in caregiving for other family members, including my parents, my in laws, several dear friends, and I've been a hospice volunteer for over a dozen years. I've seen the good, the bad, and everything in between of hospice agencies and different end of life situations. There isn't much really that I haven't seen or lived through in my experience as it relates to hospice and an end of life journey. So, the information you're going to find here is my personal experience, as well as that of my colleagues and friends.

Now, have you ever been cruising along and a song comes on the radio that takes you back to the good old days, I know there's a couple of songs that will take me back as far back as third or fourth grade down at the ice skating rink in my hometown. Or maybe get a whiff of some burning leaves and suddenly gets transported back to your childhood.

Well, grief can be like that, too. When we experience the trauma of loss, it can bring back feelings and emotions from previous experiences where we've suffered a big loss. Memories good and bad are often brought to mind by the smallest little things aren't they? Like something we smell or something we hear, or just feeling the sun on your skin and when closing your eyes, you're transported back to a really nice, sunny, warm place from your past.

Revisiting the feelings of grief can also be a result of many things and actually often catches us off guard. I saw a young man in his late 30s side profile the other day, and he looked like my late son, Matt. For a second, it was as if Matt was actually there. Then, of course, when this guy turned around and look towards me, he didn't look anything at all like Matt.

Well, maybe a little triggered grief is especially present in people who don't allow themselves to fully grieve. And the different occurrences of grief can pile up like snow and ice blowing up against a fence in the wintertime until it finally either breaks the fence or starts flowing over it either way, the outcome isn't good. repressed grief and reoccurring grief are are really common. And actually, they kind of go hand in hand. It's triggered by sounds and smells and sights, even tastes as well as words and thoughts.

I've had the occasion to taste some German potato salad. Now my father in law made the best German potato salad in the whole world. I always go back to you know, when I taste some, I think not as good as Harry's, or Wow, this is great. It's just like Harry's. So all of these things that trigger our senses can also trigger grief renewed grief.

Who was it that said, you can't get out of this life without a few bad things happening? I don't remember who said that. But it certainly is true. We all experience loss. We all experience you know the loss of a relationship a job finances, broken hearts, dreams. And you know the list goes on and on and on. But we all experience loss in our life to manage these feelings we have built in resiliency. Our life experiences happen, one on top of another to help us build that resiliency. And of course, these experiences can trigger renewed grief. Our feelings of loss are still fresh, some say hearing about someone we know and care about getting seriously hurt or even passing away and it reminds us of a comparable loss that we had previously with a loved one or friend neighbor.

I remember when I was really little a US Navy submarine was lost in a tragic accident, I believe it was called the USS Thresher. And it was, I don't know all the particulars, and I didn't really research it but I recall, it was lost at sea and, and was the coverages on all three major networks. Back then we only had three. A few days later, they televised the official memorial service in Washington DC, a bugler started to play taps and my mom lost it, she burst into tears, she sat sobbing on the living room floor. And it broke my little heart. I didn't understand what was going on. After a while, she looked at me and she said, this is just like when her brother died in World War Two to Guadamala canal. He'd been a sailor on a ship that was lost. In like these submarines on the USS Thresher, his body was never recovered. And then there was a giant memorial service in her hometown, after the war for all of the young men that didn't come home. And just hearing the sound that song taps brought on renewed grief, retriggered grief in my otherwise very strong and fairly happy go lucky Irish mother.

If you're honest with yourself, I'm sure you can relate to something like that. Did you also know that grief can compound the feeling of new loss no matter what kind it is, whether it's the loss of a job, or maybe a friendship, or whatever, it can pile up on the old losses in our subconscious. And we store those deep in the back of our minds, especially if the feelings of grief are not dealt with. And just tucked away in it way back in the part of our mind.

For example, last year, you lost your grandmother, then your best friend, then your dog got sick and died. And then your best friend from church or club gets transferred to another state, and they put their house up for sale. And everywhere you look on the landscape, there's loss. All of these losses caused us to grieve each and every one of them in and of themselves. Then you combine those, and you've got this big rock pile of loss. After all, these are all losses of things we love and in are an important part of our lives.

What happens when we don't deal with each of these feelings of loss? Well, we bottle up the feelings and they continue to grow kind of like a festering are percolating. And in the back of our minds, well, there's a little pressure cooker kind of thing. There's a term for that it's called compounded grief. And there are consequences from compounded grief. And it's, it's exactly that it's when all of our grief from all of our lifetime gets compressed together, and it gets really ugly, if we don't deal with it. Our outlook on life is changed when we grieve life doesn't seem to be as joyful or as positive. The roses aren't as fragrant, you know, just seeing that for sale sign in your neighbor's yard can trigger feelings of loss and grief.

Have you ever found yourself just being down? Just kind of being bummed out? And you don't know why? Maybe your cup half full kind of person? And well, people are saying, you know, you're different. What's going on? chances are it's because of, at least in part because of these repressed feelings. And if we don't deal with these feelings, well, like we said, then bad things happen, you know, causes us to spiral downward emotionally. And that affects our physical well being as well. Oh, in the well being of those around us, is affected to I mean, have you ever worked next to somebody who's just not they're just off for whatever reason, they're down. So when this happens to you, it impacts not only you, but everybody around you. And because we live life, we work we engage with others, we do stuff, another loss comes along out of the blue, because that's what happens in life, right in our emotional center is well with the boiling over point, that pile of rocks of loss that I was telling you about in the back of our minds, gets another rock on top. One new tragic event, like say the death of a friend in our capacity to deal with loss can sometimes just get maxed out and we either act out or we suppress these feelings even more. And you know, by blocking them where they they sit and continue to percolate and boil and fester. Well do you know what happens when you charge a hose with water, too much water you pinch it off. And then you add more and more water pressure. Of course the hose bursts right Well, the pressure forces the water out. And that's what happens with us, when we get totally stressed out, our behavior changes, our outlook of life changes, the world around us changes. I guarantee you, everyone around you knows something's wrong. And your relationship changes course temporarily, hopefully, but it changes. Heck, sometimes, many times, we don't even know what's wrong. All we know is that there's something wrong that we're off. And the concept of grief never enters our minds. Do you know what grief is and how it works? let's just review that real quickly. There are five or some say seven steps in the process of grieving. Okay, what are those steps? Number one, shock and denial, a state of where you can't believe this has happened? You feel numb, or you just don't know what to feel, you know? Or you don't? don't feel anything? Number two, anger? That's part of the why her Why me? Or Oh, no, why now? Number three, bargaining?

Okay, well, if I do this, or I do that, or if I reconcile this over here, maybe this whole thing will go away. Sort of like Lord, if I promise to be a good person, will you spare my friend? That kind of thing? That's bargaining. Number four is depression. What's the use? If I can't fix this, this is awful. This really sucks overwhelming sadness. And finally, acceptance and hope. Okay, so I can't change the situation. But I can choose to make the best of it. And that's when people begin to manage grief in a healthy way. Like I said, grief doesn't have an expiration date. In in my view, grief never goes away. But we can manage it in a healthy way and retain our well being both physically and mentally. This is especially helpful like birthday time or holiday time. That's when the skills and managing methods that we learn in these grief support groups come into play, and they help us get through these rough patches that we go through. So how do we manage all of this, let me suggest that there are a few things that all of us can do to help when the feelings of previous loss compound with a new loss. And then something triggers my grief. And for me, that happens quite a bit.

The first thing I do is redirect my thoughts. For example, I hear something or I see something or just have a thought, something that reminds me of a loss, the loss of my son, and I get this overwhelming sense of sadness for a split second, and I think to myself, okay, Mitch, we're not going there today. Not right now. Sometimes I even say that out loud if I'm alone. And I immediately think of something I like turning on the radio and in listening to the oldies station.

I know,I'm weird, but that works for me.

And if I'm in a conversation with someone, and the topic comes up, and I get this renewed feeling of grief, I may participate a little bit in that conversation. Then I politely say, you know, I'm sorry, enough of that, let's let's move on. And I change the subject to something more upbeat. And a lot of times, I throw in some humor, I lighten the mood and redirect the conversation. So redirecting your thoughts is a really good tool to deal with these triggered episodes of grief that come on us.

Second, you can prepare yourself for these triggers that bring these feelings of grief back, you know what you're going to feel, and you know why you're feeling these feelings. So you can choose to manage those by reliving them for a moment, or choosing not to this preparedness helps you takes the surprise out helps us manage these triggers and minimize our impact on us.

Next, we need to accept the fact that anything can trigger your feelings. And I mean anything smells sounds, looking at someone hearing something, or sometimes even just a random thought. And of course, it always happens when we least expect it. So instead of letting the intensity of the reminder blindside us be mentally ready so that when grief triggers appear, you can wash it out with positive thinking, or another grief recovery strategy that you might employ that you learn at one of these sessions. Or at the very least, like I said, redirect your thoughts.

You know, end of life journeys are difficult. They just are and we always suggest having help on every step of the journey and that includes dealing with Feelings of grief before and after death. Find someone you trust to help you process your feelings. Remember, they don't need to have any answers. They only need to be able to sit and listen to you and not pass judgment. Just be present. Just sit and listen. As you learn how to manage some of these triggers, like when did you get divorce? Or where Sally? Where's Tom? get good at seeing those coming. Have your trigger response Ready to go? And in that trigger response, steer the conversation to something else, if you wish to Sally's off at college, or? Yeah, Matt passed away a few years ago, but his legacy lives on. Thanks for asking you. Those are typical kinds of polite responses.

I'm gonna say something now that kind of sounds may be hard. Okay, but let that event that you experienced Let it be relived in your mind. Like when I talk about my son's death, it's usually brought on by someone asking me about him. And if I choose to tell them his story, I'm reliving that journey. And, you know, not only if I relive the bad there, but I've relived the good and I feel somewhat better after having that conversation. The grief is piled up in my mind, and, and now it's released a little bit.

In my personal experience, grief comes on easier. When I'm less active to have you noticed that if I'm in the middle of stuff, and I'm doing stuff, and I'm busy, my mind's occupied. I don't have these sessions so much. It's when I'm alone with my thoughts more, that these things can happen. we grieve the losses of not being able to see our colleagues every day, or not being able to go out with friends go to the same restaurant, or even going to church and hearing God's word which uplifts us, you know, this, all of these things compound, and they create a ton of loss for us.

Everyone copes with loss in their own way, you've heard that a million times everybody grieves in their own way. But we all share in a huge sense of it in these events with COVID. And everything being shut down. Well, that's just another big rock that's been compounding with other big rocks in our subconscious. And it leads to depression. And these are all losses. So we're on the grief cycle. So what do we do? Well, here's the big key, we get busy, we get prepared for renewed feelings of loss when they come to us. We're ready when we're triggered to go into grief. We don't let the inactivity be our norm. We get out we do stuff we engage people, even if it's just on the internet, through zoom, we engage people, there are tons of things you can do with your family without being in a crowd, you know that you can go walk and you can go hiking and go swimming and go biking, you can go fishing, even through the ice, if you're a brave person that wants to go out on a frozen lake like me, or you know, you can play outdoor games, you can play indoor games, you can play board games list goes on and on and on and on. We don't have to be inactive key in dealing with this sort of thing is to be active, manage your downtime, keep your mind going. And you'll avoid a lot of the triggers coming back into mind these renewals of grief and loss, because you're going to be occupied thinking about other things and doing positive things.

Before we close, let me share with you this thought feeling grief is important. Going through the grief cycle is superduper important for healing, grief that is acknowledged, is managed. Did you hear that grief that is acknowledged is managed grief that we resist will persist and eventually result in a mess. Many need help with moving on, especially from the anger stage because you know what, like I said, the expiration date on grief in a lot of times the grief that we go back to that that stage of grief, his anger, anger and depression in my mind are the two big ones. And so by managing those, we can get to that final stage of acceptance and hope and stay there for a while a good while when we're there. We may backslide a little bit but we know how to manage it. And that's when you just say Okay, stop enough, not going there anymore. And move your mind to something else which will help manage our grief something pause Positive, something that you enjoy doing is a, you know, a side note, as I mentioned a moment ago, and this is sort of an epiphany for me, as I sat down to record this episode, triggered grief, or renewing those feelings of loss in a particular experience a situation like with my son, Matt, you know, I don't not only review the bad, but I review the good input smile on my face.

I recall a trigger grief episode where I was thinking of my late father in law. And I was overwhelmed with sadness that he wasn't here to see what I was building for my grandchildren, because I know he'd have been proud of me, I know he would have loved it. Then in the next moment, I was thinking about some of the great times we've had in his woodshop, especially in the winter, and we're putting wood into the stove. And the stories we shared the mistakes we made, resulting in, of course, more wood for the stove. You know, I remember him saying, turn the light more this way, Mitch, I, I can't really see what what's going on here. And I'm wondering what in the world is he talking about? and laughing to myself as now I do need more light when looking over the cut line of my skill saw? You know, these are the good things that come out of renewed grief when you're going back into those experiences and reliving them.

Maybe trigger grief is more than what we think it is. Maybe it's not just about the horrible sense of loss, but a gateway to the wonderful memories that we had with our loved ones. So do you go to new thoughts? Do you redirect your thoughts? Or do you live through them, and help purge them from your subconscious, and in the same time, visit and re experience some of the really wonderful positive things that happened? In summary, the loss of anything important to us, causes us grief and in grief compounds. And if we don't manage our grief, bad stuff just happens, it just does. And grief for a loss that occurred many years ago, can reoccur like it happened just yesterday, when is triggered by something that reminds us of that person or that situation. And understanding how grief works, gives us a leg up on dealing with our feelings of loss, and lets us manage those feelings in a super healthy way. bottling them up blocking them, or tucking them way back is building a time bomb in the back of our minds. And of course that bombs gonna go off. And when it does, it's going to negatively impact our thoughts, our view of the world around us, and ultimately our behavior and happiness. And that impacts not only us, but the folks around us. Grief can be good, as it allows us to deal with not only our loss, but to remember the good and the joy and to get closure.

As always, thank you for taking time to listen to this episode. I hope you found some really helpful information in this. We really enjoy hearing from you our listeners, please drop us a quick note, let us know how we're doing. You can reach us at either our website, Or you can leave a note wherever you hear this podcast. But if you come to the website and I hope you do while you're there, sign up to subscribe to the podcast. That way you won't miss any of our episodes. And you can copy the links to our episodes to send to a loved one are friends who really might need the straight scoop about end of life care. Next time we're going to look at people outliving their prognosis and actually getting better while in hospice care that happens. Until then this is Mitch Ware for living with hospice. Thank you for listening and have a blessed day.

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