A Trigger of Torment

Coping with acute reminders of grief requires preparation and self-care.

Posted Feb 07, 2019

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Claude Monet, Flood Waters, 1896, London, National Gallery
Source: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Recently I attended a criminal trial to support a friend whose son was killed in a car crash. While I was using the courthouse men’s room, in walked a polished defense attorney representing the driver the state was prosecuting—the object of this family’s grief and ire.

He was the same lawyer who had defended the young man responsible for killing my own son sixteen years ago in another car crash.

I heard Kevin Reddington whistle under his breath in the stall. Just another day in court for him.

But for me, it was a potent trigger of my family’s darkest days. A reminder of losing Mike thrust right in my face. A reminder of what will never be. 

Not only that, but it was a brief resurgence of all that we had gone through. Seeing the lawyer ripped open that ever-nascent wound of being crime victims. Driving to the hospital, finally reading the accident report. Screaming at the wall. 

A reminder that forgiveness is not a one-off and done. 

Torments that lie just below the surface. Waiting to flood out again.

How do we handle these triggers? How can any of us prepare for and manage them?

Stepping back from that unforeseen courthouse encounter, I also wondered how forgiveness fits into this.

Even if one is able to reconcile a loved one’s death—and as in my family’s case, the person or forces responsible for the catastrophic loss of a child—how does this play out years later?

Forgiveness is not a one-off and done. Neither is guarding against these acute reminders. There is no time limit for this; the loss will continue to be felt for the rest of our lives, although we know that its intensity will change. We’re also aware that reminders will continue to pop up.

After all, for some of us the very notion of linear time—and logic or rationality itself—was blown to bits. Our framework of expected family lifelines and rhythms was altered, if not shredded.

We may need perennial reminders of how to cope with these triggers. How to both plan for those events we can anticipate—birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and the like—and monitor our reactions to unexpected ones. All of which may include allowing oneself some space to deal with them, self-care, and forgiving oneself, one’s partner or children, for our reactions and lapses. For myself in that courthouse, perhaps the bitter angst I still feel towards that lawyer is misdirected. 

Even if one is able to reconcile a loved one’s death, how does this play out years later?

I don’t pretend to have all the strategies for coping with grief triggers, but many have to do with preparedness. These strategies also include being open to expressiveness, and, yes, reopening to forgiveness. Even to perpetrators and those who represent them.
Here are some tips adapted from the Mayo Clinic. They are organized for anniversaries, and I believe they may also useful for other situations:

  • Plan a distraction. Schedule a gathering or a visit with friends or loved ones during times when you're likely to feel alone or be reminded of your loved one's death.
  • Reminisce about your relationship. Focus on the good things about ties with your loved one and the time you had together, rather than the loss. Write a letter or note to your loved one, or gather a photo collection with some of your best memories.
  • Start a new tradition. Be creative doing something your family is passionate about. Perhaps for starters, make a donation to a charitable organization in your loved one's name on birthdays or holidays.
  • Connect with others who get it. Draw friends and loved ones close to you, including people who were special to your loved one. Find those who listen and encourage you to talk about your loss. Reach for support systems such as spiritual leaders and social groups such as a grief support group.
  • Allow yourself to feel a range of emotions. It's all right to be sad and feel a sense of loss, but also allow yourself to experience joy and happiness.

It’s vital also to recognize that, for many of us, these floods of grief will change over time. In Especially For You, my recent book about families finding a new purpose after unspeakable loss, I wrote about a mom whose son was killed in another roadway death. For a long time, she suffered a recurring nightmare of standing in the middle of the highway watching the crash about to happen, unable to do anything. Years later:

The dream on the highway still revisits her, but it’s no longer the same. It has softened like waves spread over time, less intense, though still rolling out. In moments, the whoosh of swells breaking on a distant ledge is irrefutable.

Back in the courtroom, that lawyer began his successful defense with a motion the judge agreed to: prohibiting the family, and each of us there to support them, from wearing a button with their handsome son’s image. The reason was that it might have been prejudicial for the jury to see them.

Momentarily incensed about the ruling, I had to let it go. This was about my friend’s son and his family’s grief—not my own.

As always, continuing since our ordeal in 2002, I already had plenty to contend with.

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