Strategies to Handle Unexpected Grief Triggers After the Loss of a Loved One

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Alecia Milano
Posted by Alecia Milano on November 8, 2022

The feelings we experience after losing a loved one are like no other. Months, sometimes even years, are spent trying to find a new normal without them in your life. And just when it seems like we’ve found a way to cope with grief, a special date or reminder comes up that immediately brings us back to those feelings of pain.

These instances are most commonly referred to as grief triggers.

Below we explore different examples of grief triggers and how to prepare for when they appear.

What Are Grief Triggers?

A grief trigger is anything that resurfaces memories related to a loss. Sometimes, grief triggers can be easy to anticipate—for example, a special occasion related to your lost loved one, like a birthday or holiday. They can also come as a surprise, like your loved one’s favorite song playing on the radio or seeing someone who looks like your loved one in a crowd. 

Grief triggers can be difficult to manage. The memories that surface might come out of nowhere as you’re taking an afternoon walk or sitting at work, and often leave you with powerful emotions.

When you truly think about it though, the memories you’re recalling aren’t so random after all—they’re typically prompted by a specific sight, sound, smell or word. Your brain is programmed to associate certain memories with strong emotions, leading you to feel one of two ways: happy or like you’re experiencing a loss all over again.

Examples of Grief Triggers

When a grief trigger arises, it’s not uncommon for you to experience the intense emotions you once felt when you first lost your loved one. Some feelings could include anger, anxiety, fatigue, guilt, pain and sadness. These emotions can be caused by triggers such as:

  • Special occasions. Holidays, anniversaries, birthdays and other special days throughout the year can cause significant pain when you’ve lost a loved one. 
  • Life milestones. You may feel sadness upon receiving invitations to major events like weddings or graduations because you’ll realize your loved one won’t be able to join you.
  • Favorite music. A particular song or music genre can spark feelings of grief because you knew it was something your loved one enjoyed.
  • Smells or sounds. Certain sounds like ocean waves or smells like a signature fragrance can take you back to a time when your loved one was still here.

Lost opportunities. Events like father-daughter or mother-son dances, tend to call attention to a loss because you are unable to participate without your loved one.

Are Grief Triggers Normal?

The simple answer is yes—grief triggers are 100% normal and happen to anyone who has experienced a loss. 

Certain reminders of your loved one are going to be inevitable, like visiting them at the cemetery, the anniversary of their death, holidays, birthdays or new events you know they would have enjoyed. 

No matter what the grief trigger may be, every person has a unique way of coping with grief. Some may choose to confront their grief triggers or completely avoid them altogether. It’s all about what works best for you—and understanding that your reaction is normal.

How To Prepare For Grief Triggers

Grief triggers that remind you of your loss can happen anywhere, at any time. While some may be very obvious and predictable, others can bring a new wave of unprecedented emotions. Consider the following five tips to prepare for these instances.

1. Keep Track of Special Days

For the more evident grief triggers like milestones, holidays and birthdays, one of the simplest preparations you can do is keep track of when these days are coming up. Planning for special days and marking them on your calendar can help you better cope when the day arrives. 

2. Identify the Grief Trigger

Start to recognize what is triggering your grief and take note of what exactly is happening to make you feel that way. When you’re able to identify the grief trigger, you’ll know exactly how to cope and will be able to better understand why a certain event made you experience those emotions. 

3. Acknowledge Your Feelings

Although everyone grieves differently, hiding your feelings from others will likely prolong the grieving process. Instead, accept the feelings you’re experiencing and even share them with others. As time goes on, it will become easier to acknowledge your feelings—coping mechanisms will start to become second nature and will help you to anticipate the next grief trigger.

4. Find a Safe Space

A grief trigger can often come out of nowhere. While you may not be able to plan for each instance, by finding a safe space, you can always rest assured you’ll have somewhere to experience your emotions in private. A special place for grieving alone and away from it all can be a room in your home, an outdoor spot or even your car.

5. Educate Yourself

Reading books or watching movies about grief can help you understand what grief is, how it affects you and ways to cope when unexpected grief triggers pop up. The more you learn about the stages of grief, the quicker you’ll find your way through the tough emotions that come with loss.

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Topics: Grief

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