Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Rethinking Triggers

When you’re a new survivor, painful triggers lurk everywhere. Your heart and mind are so fixated on and tormented by loss, your body so shaken with shock, that everything reminds you of the tragedy. In the early months after my son Noah’s suicide, my mind would be wandering and suddenly, I’d flash on finding him dead; I’d be so traumatized, I’d have to stop everything, including the car, and talk myself down. Or just the sight of the driveway would pummel me with the realization that a smiling Noah would never walk up it again.

Many loss survivors have PTSD and need to avoid triggers of traumatic memories, like the site of the suicide. Some of us use EMDR and other therapies to exorcise the worst of these from our minds. We need to do this to claw our way out of the pit we’ve landed in or, once out, to maintain our delicate balance. 

I’ve tracked grief milestones on this blog by noticing how some triggers shift in shape and lose their sting over time. There was the point when I could look at Halloween decorations again, drive through our old neighborhood again, make it through Valentine’s Day without crying. 

Six and a half years out, some triggers still crush me. Like when reading a survivor’s story comparing her husband’s major depression to cancer as a disease complete with remission, drug resistance, and terminal risk, I came to the part about how the final months of his life were like being in hospice care except his family didn’t know it. I let out a howl and had a big cry, haunted by images of Noah’s last numb weeks at home. It was the worst grief surge I’ve had for a while but I was overdue.

I was grateful to the author for giving me new insight into those terrible weeks. As a psychologist notes, triggers are "unhealed emotional wounds" that can be our teacher; "they give us an opportunity to observe and reflect, which enables us to heal." I was also grateful for the catharsis of tears that brought me back to my grieving soul. Because it doesn’t surface as often anymore. As the years mount since Noah’s suicide and life fills with other things, grief still resides within me but doesn’t take up as much space.

It’s easier with time to choose which triggers to let in. Like at a ballet lecture, watching a video clip of the scene where Romeo finds Juliet dead, holds her limp body in his arms, and—to my horror—actually begins to dance with her corpse. I turned away; I couldn’t see the beauty in movement that reminded me of holding Noah’s dead body. Just like I don’t need the colorful, down to earth reminders of Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead that death is a part of life; it’s been ever too much a part of mine. 

There will always be dangerous triggers for some survivors and for those who’ve been traumatized in other ways; dealing with these is tough work that can take years. Some people with anxiety wrestle with triggers on a daily basis.

But for others who are years out from a traumatic event, triggers need not always be feared. After all, to trigger something means to cause it to happen, to set it in motion—so the question is, what do triggers activate in each of us? The answer is so individual. For me, triggers can unlock a door that’s stuck and lead the way back to the mourning grove when I’m overdue for a visit. Or they can open a window into memory, both good and bad, that still needs processing. So at this stage, I welcome most triggers because they remind me of what I’ve lost—and because I can handle them now. Both are blessings. 

To my fellow survivors: How do you look upon and handle your triggers? Have they or you changed over time? I’d like to hear your take on triggers, whether in a comment on the blog or at susanauerbach56@gmail.com  Find out more about emotional triggers here and many reputable places online. And if you’re haunted with highly disturbing, disruptive memories or flashbacks around the suicide, I hope you’ll seek help for PTSD.

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