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After the loss of a loved one, we all experience grief, but every grief journey is different because every person is different. What you feel really depends on your personality and your relationship with the person who has died. Some people will experience sadness, guilt, and regret, while others will feel shock, anger, and fear mixed with the sadness. Both of these reactions are completely normal and natural responses to loss.

Sad woman sitting on chair at home

As you process your feelings of grief, they will lessen in intensity over time. However, every so often, you will experience a sudden burst of grief. These moments are called “grief bursts” and are often brought on by a grief trigger. Today, we will discuss what grief triggers are and what you should know about them.  

What are Grief Triggers?

Simply put, a grief trigger is anything that brings up memories related to a loss. That’s very broad, but it’s true. Grief triggers will vary from person to person, so it’s good to pay attention to what triggers grief in you particularly. For example, you may be walking through a department store when the smell of mom’s favorite perfume hits your nose. The scent evokes memories of your mom, and before you know it, there are tears in your eyes. The scent was a grief trigger.  

Focus on man's profile, placing his hand on his forehead

What Types of Things Act as Grief Triggers?

All kinds of things can become grief triggers, even years after a loss. The thing to remember, though, is that these sudden bursts of grief are natural. Even after you’ve learned how to live without that special person, there will be moments throughout your life when you deeply miss them. However, some of those moments of grief may be the result of grief triggers.

Grief triggers may be something you can anticipate, like:         

  • Loved one’s birthday
  • Upcoming holiday
  • Family occasions
  • Death anniversary
  • Days with special meaning to you

Other grief triggers may come from unexpected sources, which can make them more challenging to identify, like:

  • Smells, sounds, sights, actions
  • Songs, words, places
  • Movies, people, colors
  • And anything else that stirs a memory

As you work through your grief, pay attention to when these sudden bursts hit you. What were you doing? What did you see? Smell? Hear? Did a memory come to mind? As you identify your personal grief triggers, you can better prepare for them in the future.

Mother and daughter sitting on couch, daughter sad and mom comforting

What Should I Do When a Grief Trigger Hits?

While it may not be what you want to hear, try to embrace the moment. Too often, we bottle up our emotions and don’t properly process them. While a grief trigger may come at an inopportune moment, the people around you will understand. Friends, family, and even strangers are capable of great compassion, especially if you give a brief explanation, like “These flowers remind me of my wife.”

Nationally respected author and grief counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt says, “The pain of grief will keep trying to get your attention until you unleash your courage to gently, and in small doses, open to its presence. The alternative—denying or suppressing your pain—is, in fact, more painful. If you do not honor your grief by acknowledging it, it will accumulate and fester. So, you must ask yourself, ‘How will I host this loss? What do I intend to do with this pain? Will I befriend it, or will I make it my enemy?'”

Choose to befriend your pain, to make it familiar and eventually part of who you are. You never “get over” the loss of someone loved. Instead, you learn how to reconcile yourself to the loss, knowing that so many beautiful chapters of your life are dedicated to that person. And you can cherish and re-visit those chapters whenever you want.

Husband and wife sitting at couch at home; husband sad and wife comforting him

Should I Try to Stop Grief Triggers?

Grief is complicated, and as a general rule, we human beings don’t like difficult things. So, you may be tempted to avoid grief triggers as much as possible. If the grief triggers are debilitating, then it may be best to avoid them when you can. For example, if passing your dad’s fishing hat on the hat rack by the front door always triggers your grief, consider moving it to another location for a while. In the early days of loss, your emotions may be especially intense. Over time, they will lessen, and you may begin to find comfort in your dad’s hat.

However, don’t avoid all grief triggers all the time. It’s essential to learn how to deal with your emotions when they arise, no matter the situation. When a grief trigger comes, accept what you’re feeling, engage with it, and when possible, express your feelings. You can express yourself through tears, talking to a friend, journaling, or whatever works best for you. In other words, don’t avoid your grief; that leads to unhealthy habits of avoidance. To heal, you must face the pain head-on, even though it’s hard. 

Quiet woman in green sweater sitting at home, thinking and grieving

What if My Grief Triggers Become Debilitating?

If you are experiencing many grief triggers or your grief triggers are causing you anxiety, it’s best to seek out a grief counselor or therapist. They can give you professional advice on the best way to handle what you’re experiencing. And even if your grief triggers aren’t debilitating, it can be beneficial to speak with someone who’s there to listen and help you process what you’re feeling.

And if going to see a counselor feels intimidating, that’s okay. Many people feel nervous when trying new things. Give it a try and see whether it will work for you. Some people only need to attend a few sessions to see improvement, while others find that speaking to a counselor on a regular basis is just what they need to live a more balanced life. And if you’d rather not meet one-on-one, you can join a grief support group instead.

Woman and female therapist talking together

With this information, you should better understand what grief triggers are and the role they play in your grief journey. As you continue to heal, be aware of your own needs, taking note of what triggers you and how you respond to the triggers. The more you know about yourself, the better you will handle grief bursts and triggers when they show up. Best wishes to you on the journey toward hope and healing!

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