When Grief Triggers You
No one I know would describe me as a casual tv watcher. I’m not your ideal partner for ‘mindless’ anything, because my disposition to watching television is as a facilitator.
I’m known for selecting clips and showing their excerpts during workshops and trainings.
Yesterday I was listening to reruns of Parenthood in the background, season 4.
There is a one minute clip that is pertinent to this blog.
Julia, one of four adult children in the Braverman family, is in the kitchen making breakfast for her two children.
Her children are rattling off questions and she is responding.
Then her ears start to ring.
The toast is burning. The eggs start to burn. The smoke detector goes off loudly.
The two children continue to talk to her, calling her attention to all of these signals of emergency.
“Mom! I’m talking to you? Why aren’t you answering?”
You see Julia scraping burnt shavings off a piece of toast in the sink, decompensating amidst the brewing chaos.
Her husband enters and yells at the kids to leave the room so he can attend to his wife, who now is crying, struggling to breathe, and collapsing to the floor in a panic attack.
She pushes him away, overwhelmed by his touch as he encourages her to breathe out.
This scene for me captures the vividness of being triggered.
Moving rapidly from keeping up with what’s happening to becoming unresponsive.
Reactions to stress appearing suddenly and then intensifying.
Cues of emergency failing to register.
Attempts of your surroundings to read you, comfort you, get an explanation.
Slowly being pulled towards fog.
What is important to this moment is not what causes it, that is it’s own separate layer.
Trauma triggers are primarily physiological.
By this I mean their presence is announced with physical changes, leading us to distress.
This scene of benignly making breakfast, and a minute later balled up on the floor captures that beautifully.
And yet as you watch more of the show, you realize that those separate layers are their own trigger.
What I’m terming in this reference as a connected grief response.
Grief is the process of reacting to a loss.
When grief is triggered, physiological responses are hyjacked and sped up by an emotional one, because all of what we are reacting to is coated in meaning. That meaning is known to you, and that’s what fuels your reactions consciously, even as your distress resembles more familiar responses that pass more quickly in comparison. Grief is more of a loop in how it moves in us.
Trauma is more of an intersection, and in a lot of cases involving grief, that intersection gets positioned right in the middle of grief’s loop, adding to the stuck feeling, the surrounded feeling, the impression that you’ve lost control.
For trauma triggers their relief comes from resolving their physical expressions, naturally ending once the release is expressed. Yet for grief triggers, their relief comes from making peace with their reoccurrence. There is no outlet big enough to feel relieving, there’s no apparent resolution, just another emotion we hope we can feel soon.
With grief, we are not triggered by a threat to our safety. We are triggered by being connected to the feeling of loss.
Yesterday I was triggered by grief.
In my niece’s ballet class when I remembered my sister the ballerina who has passed away now.
In my apartment building as I texted her son who was moving into a unit below mine.
By the month of May and all that it represents.
By Mother’s Day.
By Star Wars Day.
By sick kid hugs.
By looming Gemini season.
By three bowls that I broke separately.
By not having the words.
By not being able to listen well.
That coated meaning is laced with our emotions, and our emotions don’t contain the same false truths.
They contain old truths.
They contain partial truths.
They involve a lot more types of memories and associations.
And their tapes don’t just tire.
We may cry ourselves to sleep, but that fog will be there when we wake up and remember.
It’s a feat of its own to stomach any trigger, and it helps when you can tell your brain that it’s feeling of being unsafe isn’t currently true.
But what about when the trigger isn’t new, but it’s loss is still unaddressed?
Unaddressed because it will forever be.
The circle with no exits, and squeezed in intersections that we’re still oriented to.
When these triggers enter, and we are conscious of them, stamina is what we need to master.
Stamina for the fatigue it brings, rather than the activation that will end on its own.
Stamina for the consciousness of each detail that loss brings up, and the pressure to communicate each one in context.
Stamina for the proximity that feels closer over time rather than still foggy.
The clarity that you’ve worked for is what triggers you repeatedly, but without it the fog doesn’t wane into anything else.
What I tell myself during weeks like this is the only simple enough truth that is also a feeling.