Grief triggers | Empathy
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Grief & Grieving

Grief triggers

What to remember when everyday things cause pain


  • There is no right or wrong way to grieve.

  • It is not uncommon for sensory experiences to trigger feelings of grief.

  • It is next to impossible to avoid grief triggers entirely.

  • Identifying and naming your grief as it arises can be the first step to letting go.

  • Sitting in and experiencing the discomfort of grief helps with acceptance and resolution.


Grief is uncomfortable. It can feel inescapable. Like many difficult aspects of life, the only way out is through. It is hard and unpredictable, and it can take a lot longer than you might imagine, longer than you probably want it to. 

But grief is also one of the most profound aspects of our humanity. It is a symptom of our enormous capacity for love. The process of moving through this experience of grief requires us to build new neurological pathways, ones that lead to something else, so we can get to some semblance of acceptance and resolution on the most essential level. 

One of the toughest things about dealing with grief is how unpredictable it can be. When you have shared part of your life with someone who is now gone, you are bound to encounter something that reminds you of them. It can happen anywhere, at any time. 

We sometimes call these grief triggers. Anything can be a trigger. Something specific like a photograph or a song on the radio, or something harder to point to, and likely harder to avoid: the scent of rain, the feeling of the seasons turning, the way your child gestures just like your loved one used to. You could be moving through your day with relative ease, and suddenly the pain, the anguish, or the anger comes flooding back to you all over again. 

Just because grief triggers can be unpredictable, that doesn’t mean you are powerless against them.

Petrea King, author of The Empty Chair at Christmas, describes grief as “a strange beast that we learn to live with.” It is next to impossible to avoid grief triggers entirely. You can avoid turning down a particular street or eating a particular meal because you know it will remind you of your loved one. Maybe you find that avoiding as many as you can is a coping mechanism that helps you. Taking control over your experience as much as possible can provide its own source of comfort. But it’s important to remember that at some point you are still going to encounter something that reminds you of your loved one, and it’s likely to bring on some painful emotions.  

But just because grief triggers can be unpredictable, that doesn’t mean you are powerless against them. You might feel blindsided and frustrated, especially if you feel sudden grief at an inopportune moment: while you’re at work, or picking your kids up from school. Sometimes you are able to hold it together until you can get a quiet moment alone, but that’s not always possible. Over time, you can develop a toolkit of strategies to help you through these especially difficult periods. 

As with many emotional experiences, identifying and naming your grief can be the first step to letting go. When you do have a moment to sit with your feelings, it can help to try to name what you are experiencing. What was it specifically that brought on these feelings? Why might you be reacting this way? How does grief show up in your body? Is it a pit in your stomach? A tightness in your throat? An ache in your skull? It can show up in a particular place, or as a series of behaviors. 

Being really specific and mindful can help you develop a strategy for addressing it. Just because an emotion is negative doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy. But instead of a cloudy sense of being overwhelmed, you can learn to pinpoint your triggers and anticipate the cycle of your emotions. Find ways to allow yourself to feel your feelings in a way that allows for healing.    

Becoming aware of your experience, how and what you are feeling and how you come out of it, will help you to move through this process. Not perfectly, because no such thing exists, but with a degree of grace and self-compassion ●

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Grief & Grieving

Grief & Grieving

Grief isn’t a feeling. It’s a process. Everyone experiences it differently, and you are the only one who can feel your feelings. But some understanding may help you come to grips with what you are going through.

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