By Dr. Louis LaGrand —

Have you been having a relatively good day after a loss, and then while watching television, see a particular scene and suddenly feel the return of sadness? Or has a newspaper story of the death of a stranger set off sorrowful memories for you? These are moments of “grief triggering,” and are commonly the cause of grieving that can go on for days or longer.

Kim Wencl, whose daughter died in a tragic house fire while at college, had the following experience.

The bridge collapse in Minneapolis was a trigger for me. It really had nothing to do with my loss. But as soon as I heard about it and started to watch the news coverage, I felt almost physically ill and panicky, had difficulty breathing, and experienced immediate and immense feelings of extreme sadness. Despite all of these feelings, I couldn’t get myself to quit watching the coverage, even though after a couple of hours, I realized it was triggering my own grief feelings which hadn’t bubbled up in almost a year. If you don’t know what a trigger is, (and I don’t think most grieving people do) it is even more unnerving because it comes out of the blue, very quickly, and you don’t understand why it’s happening.

Here’s what you need to know when something you see, hear, smell or experience brings back the pain of your loss.

1. The experience is normal and common. There is nothing wrong with you. You did not cause the event. It is part of the way we store memories. Sometimes it is the result of unresolved traumatic imprints highly emotional events that become imbedded in our psyches and our bodies and may need professional assistance to manage. Both happy and not so happy memories have their triggers. The role of the mind in healing is extremely powerful and at other times extremely limiting. But grief triggers are to be expected. That’s the way memory works.

2. To help defuse the impact of the sudden onset of grief, keep telling yourself that what you are experiencing is normal, normal, normal. Say it to yourself: affirming this belief will expand your ability to continue healing. Deal with it by expressing your emotions and finding support persons who understand the phenomena and your need for their listening skills. Regrettably, you may have to educate some of them at this difficult time. Nevertheless, full disclosure of what is happening within can be very useful. Don’t hide your feelings. You are not weak in sharing your plight.

3. Remember that these grief episodes, like all grief responses, have a physical component. You may get a headache, digestive disturbances, feel ill, or not be able to sleep. Thoughts are always transferred to our cells with corresponding physical manifestations. Of course, from the modern perspective of neurochemistry, this also means that joyful and peaceful thoughts can have highly positive effects on your physiology, especially the immune system.

4. Allow the experience to unfold and the pain in your heart to move through and out of you.

Here is how Kim put it:  As to what helped in dealing with that grief trigger experience, I guess the biggest thing was just knowing that what I was experiencing was a grief trigger. Once I had that realization I knew that, if I acknowledged everything I was feeling and just felt it as opposed to ignoring it or pretending it wasn’t happening the symptoms would subside, which they did over the course of a day or two.

The key words in this observation are: acknowledge everything. Never forget: what you resist persists. Let it work through you.

Finally, I can’t emphasize enough how individual grief triggers can be. The intensity, extent, and frequency of these events vary immensely among individuals. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the death of your loved one, the emotional investment in the person, and the internal connections made from your precipitating experience a grief trigger for you may be a complete surprise and thus alarming.

In any event, accepting the experience and not resisting is the best way to disarm and limit the unnecessary suffering that accompanies this loss-related grief response. The transition will require you to shift your thought processes away from focusing on why me? to what can I learn from this opportunity?

Accepting grief triggers as normal especially when they come months or years after the death of your loved one is a manageable and ongoing part of the healing process. We are always healing because we are always dealing with change. And, we bring with us our previous loss experiences to each new challenge. You can meet that challenge.

Dr. LaGrand is a grief counselor and the author of eight books, the most recent, Love Lives On: Learning from the Extraordinary Encounters of the Bereaved. He is known world-wide for his research on the Extraordinary Experiences of the bereaved (after-death communication phenomena) and is one of the founders of Hospice of the St. Lawrence Valley, Inc. His monthly ezine-free website is

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Louis LaGrand

Louis E. LaGrand, Ph.D., is Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York and Adjunct Professor of Health Careers at the Eastern Campus of Suffolk Community College in Riverhead, New York. He was a member of the debriefing team for the Nassau County Medical Examiner’s office on the TWA Flight 800 disaster, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Association for Death Education and Counseling, and a founder and past-president of Hospice of St. Lawrence Valley. The author of eight books and numerous articles, he is known world-wide for his research on the Extraordinary Experiences of the bereaved (After-Death Communication phenomena). His first two books on the subject of the extraordinary have been translated into several languages. Messages and Miracles: The Extraordinary Experiences of the Bereaved is listed in the 100 Top Bestsellers for Counseling by the Online Dictionary of Mental Health. Love Lives On: Learning from the Extraordinary Encounters of the Bereaved, was released in November, 2006 by Berkley Books, a division of Penguin. His newest book is Healing Grief, Finding Peace: 101 Ways to Cope with the Death of Your Loved One. Dr. LaGrand holds advanced degrees from Columbia University, the University of Notre Dame, and Florida State University. He has appeared on numerous radio and TV shows throughout the country including Unsolved Mysteries, Art Bell Coast to Coast, and Strange Universe. With over 25 years of counseling the bereaved, he is an international speaker who gives workshops on death-related topics in schools, hospices, and health agencies in the US, Canada, and England. He is currently Bereavement Coordinator at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Venice, Florida, and Director of Loss Education Associates.

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