How to Recognize Your Grief Triggers: Step-By-Step

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Grief triggers can be best described as sudden reminders that your loved one has died that generate powerful emotional responses within you. Dealing with grief triggers may result from even unexpectedly encountering situations that remind you of your loved one who’s died.

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These reminders elicit strong emotions that may take you back into your grief. You may experience a sudden burst of crying, anger, rage, confusion, or deep sorrow, among other more common emotional expressions associated with grief. When taken aback by something as strong or as emotional as a grief trigger, you may be wondering… “What just happened? I thought I was over this.

How do people manage grief triggers? What are they, anyway?

What’s a Grief Trigger?

Grief triggers are anything that causes you to revert into your grief without warning. Sudden and intense feelings of distress, pain, and sorrow usually accompany. Some of the more common triggers are milestone dates like birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. 

Although you may anticipate that these days will be incredibly tough on you, your response to them may not fully manifest until you experience such a triggering event. Other types of grief triggers may sneak up on you. You may be going about your routine having a good day, and seemingly out of nowhere, grief will strike and overwhelm you. Although anything can serve as a grief trigger, below, you’ll find some common examples.

Examples of grief triggers

  • Milestones. Invitations to weddings or graduations often trigger emotional grief responses. These types of life’s milestones are some of the most common times when you’ll experience sadness over your loss even when you thought you had your grief under control.
  • Special occasions. Holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, and other special days throughout the year cause significant pain when you’ve lost a loved one. These are constant reminders that’ll likely trigger some semblance of grief for some time to come.
  • Favorite song. A particular song dedicated to you by your loved one who’s died may continue to trigger a certain level of grief regardless of how many years have passed since their death. 
  • Smells or sounds. The scent of a particular fragrance or the sounds of children playing may cause you to revert to feeling grief over your loss. Certain sounds and smells that take you back are that of your loved one’s signature scent, a favorite brand of cigar, or children laughing and playing at a distance.
  • Lost opportunities. Bring Your Child to Work Day, father/daughter or mother/son dances, vacations - these all tend to call attention to your loss. If your spouse or child has died, in particular, you may find that these events bring your loss to the forefront. 
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Steps for Recognizing Your Grief Triggers

After losing a loved one, your life and your reality will never be the same.  It may take some time for you to process and accept that your loved one is no longer here. Once the fact sets in, your grief can take on an entirely new direction. 

You’ll start to notice that certain things set off your grief responses without immediately realizing why you’re feeling the way you do. The following steps will help you recognize when what you’re feeling is attributed to your grief.  

You’ll need to develop some coping skills since grief triggers can suddenly and unexpectedly elicit any or all of the following emotions:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Crying
  • Guilt
  • Lack of motivation
  • Loneliness

1. Mark your calendar

One of the simplest things that you can do to help you recognize when a grief trigger is approaching is to mark all special days on your calendar. You may not need a reminder of these dates and holidays, but planning for them by keeping them on your calendar may help you better cope when the day arrives. 

If you’re not yet ready to face a year’s worth of special days, ask a close friend or loved one to help you with marking these occasions. 

2. Identify the trigger

Whenever grief strikes out of the blue, and you’re wondering why you’re suddenly overwhelmed with grief, take note of what’s happening to make you feel that way. Usually, it’s something that may have caused you to remember an obscure detail of your loved one, such as a hidden mole or their uneven toes.

Once you become aware of some of your triggers, you’ll be better able to deflect the onset of grief at inopportune times. 

3. Accept your feelings

Trying to hide how you feel from yourself and others only prolong the grief process. Acceptance of your loss, your feelings, and emotions will help you understand when these emotions come up seemingly out of nowhere. It’s all part of the grief reaction to loss. In time, it’ll become second nature to feel, accept, and let go of these waves of grief.  

Like the ebb and flow of the ocean waves, when expected, you anticipate the next one and brace yourself for it. 

4. Find your special place

Grief triggers usually come about unexpectedly. You may not be able to plan for each instance, but you can ensure that you have a safe place to go to be alone. Finding a special place where you can grieve in private will help you gain better control of each time grief rears its head. 

A particular space for grieving alone and away from it all can be a closet in your home, an outdoor space, or even your vehicle. 

5. Learn about grief

Reading books of grief will help you understand not only what grief is and how it affects you, but you’ll also learn to recognize when unexpected grief pops up. The more you read about the different types of grief there are, the usual reactions to it, and how the grieving process works, the quicker you’ll find your way through your grief. 

Before you know it, you’ll be able to reclaim your joy and happiness and move forward with your life in your new existence.

6. Practice positive self-talk

When you’ve become aware that your grief’s been triggered, change your internal dialogue in how you respond to your feelings and emotions. Negative self-talk can hurt the way you work through your grief. Practice instead having gratitude despite your losses, being hopeful for the future, and accepting the death of your loved one. 

Positive self-talk includes being loving and kind to yourself instead of talking down to yourself, blaming yourself, or feeling guilty over the death of your loved one. 

7. Anticipate and minimize

Learning to anticipate your grief triggers beyond calendar dates and other special days involves learning about different ways that you may be reminded of your loss. For example, expect that when you walk through most department stores at the mall, you’ll likely walk through the fragrance section on your way to wherever it is your going. A familiar scent may hit you as you make your way through the store triggering your memory and emotions.

Find workarounds to avoid these sections of the store or mall that will recall painful memories. You can anticipate and minimize your grief triggers by strategically planning as you go about your daily activities. 

8. Stay on course

Grief triggers don’t define the course of your grief process. They are temporary emotional setbacks that can quickly come and go. When you experience overwhelming grief sensations when you thought you were getting past your grief, it can be unsettling. Don’t allow these episodes to derail your progress. 

Staying on course on your path to grief recovery may seem challenging at times like these, but setbacks don’t need to hold you back. 

9. Gauge your reactions

Just as no two people will ever grieve the same way, no two people will identically experience grief triggers. Try and avoid comparing your grief to others. Even if you’ve both suffered the same loss at the same time, understand that your reactions are yours alone. 

Don’t compare the way you’re grieving to the way others are taking to their losses. You don’t know how someone’s feeling on the inside or how their grief is affecting them. 

10. Feeling anxious

Feelings of fear and anxiety are often the precursors to a bout of unexpected grief. Take a step back from what’s causing these emotional reactions so that you’re able to assess what’s going. Once you recognize the source, either move through your grief or walk away from the situation. When grief anxiety is triggered, it’s usually a sign that you’ve found yourself in an uncomfortable position. 

Recognize that you don’t have to be brave and simply withstand these moments, and it’s okay to come back to whatever you were doing at a later time. 

11. Feeling hopeless

Seeking online therapy or counseling can help you sort through your grief so that you’re better prepared to cope with it when triggered.

There are many options for you to get the help you need without having to go into a therapist’s office. More and more services are now available to you online for those times when you’re feeling hopeless and unable to cope.

Frequently Asked Questions: Grief Triggers

Individuals dealing with loss may not always recognize the circumstances and events that trigger strong grief responses. Understanding why a specific date, time, place, smell, or even a gesture evokes adverse emotional reactions comes with time. When death or loss has just occurred, emotions are generally raw and unpredictable.

However, as time goes on, your pain and sorrow begin to subside, and you start to feel better. Then a triggering event occurs, which can make your feelings spiral out of control. Here are some common questions on how to deal with grief triggers.

Should you avoid your grief triggers?

Every person has a unique way of dealing with grief. Whether you choose to confront your triggers or avoid them altogether is something you'll need to see what works best for you. Avoiding grief triggers, in the beginning, is not always an entirely bad idea. Some people may need to use this as a coping mechanism to get them through the early stages of grief until they feel stronger and more capable of handling their emotions.

Consider setting a future date, such as an anniversary or other significant day, to be at one with your grief. Begin emotionally preparing yourself for this day and consider enlisting your loved one's support to help you get through. 

What’s a delayed grief trigger?

When external forces complicate the grieving process, there tends to be a delay in the things that trigger your pain and sorrow. For example, an individual acting as the caregiver for a parent who's died may not realize their parent's death's impact until much later. Exhaustion from overwork, caring for their loved ones, and overall fatigue may keep them from focusing on their grief.

At some point, the realization hits that their parent's presence and daily routines are no longer there and they now have to face life without them. The emotional response to their loss may come many weeks or months after their parent's death. Their grief may be triggered by seeing hospice come in to remove medical equipment from their home or by a final expense bill arriving in the mail. 

How can you deal with unexpected grief triggers?

Having a carefully laid out plan for dealing with unexpected grief triggers is one of the best ways of preparing yourself for these responses. Generally, coming to terms with your loss and understanding the feelings and emotions that stem from grief are essential in coping with spontaneous grief reactions.

Keep a calendar of all special dates, anniversaries, and other markers on the calendar when you’re more likely to suffer from an unexpected grief reaction. Try to plan for those days from where you’ll be, what you’ll do, and who you’ll be with at different times of the day. Earmark exits, private areas, and have alternative plans if things get uncomfortable for you or if you need a place to retreat. 

How can you help a loved one deal with grief triggers?

A loved one who’s dealing with unexpected grief reactions may need some time to themselves to be alone with their grief and regroup. Consider that men and women grieve differently, and a loved one’s response to their suffering isn’t a personal rejection of you. 

You can offer your love and support in many ways by first recognizing their grief and loss. Don’t hesitate to take the initiative of excusing yourselves from public spaces if the situation warrants. If triggers occur at home, give your loved one space to process their emotions without forcing them to share how they’re feeling with you. 

Recognizing Your Grief Triggers

The pain of loss can seem overwhelming. You may wonder how long does grief last, but the process is different for everyone. Typically, a normal grief cycle will last from a few weeks up to twelve months. 

You don’t always need to be anxious about when the next triggering event will take place. Recognizing your grief triggers is half the battle. Once you know why you’re feeling the way you are, you can become adept at finding solutions that work to help get you through your grief. 

If you're looking for more resources on grief, read our guides on free grief counseling and bereavement vs. grief.

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