Triggers are everywhere. After a death, the sense of smell can be either a big problem or a big relief depending on where a person is in the grief process. Examples that many people can identify with include suddenly sniffing the air around you because you’re caught in the wake of a certain perfume or cologne. The aromas of certain beverages and foods summon similar reactions. The astringent scent of an elementary school hallway, the smoky perfume of a fire, the delicious smell of the cosmetics in a particular department store, the warm silk of a baby’s skin and the whiff of patchouli in a suburban backyard can conjure place memories.
Smell and taste are just one set of triggers. How about the sight of a dog’s leash hanging over the knob of the front door? Or the time you were sweeping under the sofa and out came your cat’s favorite toy? A person preserved in a photograph that you tuck in a drawer. Books can be treacherous. Open one and you might find the pages your loved one dog-eared, the passages they underlined or the notes they wrote between the paragraphs.
How about the experience of walking along a crowded street and glimpsing a person who looks like your loved one? How is it that your heart can leap with hope while your brain simultaneously reminds you of reality? Beware those boxes containing holiday and seasonal home decorations. I collect moon and star Christmas tree ornaments. My mother gave me many over the years. The first Christmas after her death, I opened the box of ornaments, pulled one out and unwrapped it. Just the feel of that star in my hands broke my heart. We didn’t put up a tree.
Triggers are universal in their ability to evoke deeply powerful feelings and memories and a big part of their power lies in their unexpectedness. You don’t see them coming. By the time you do, it’s too late and you are waylaid and brought to you knees. Frankly, for months I dealt with triggers by avoiding as many as possible. It was an intuitive reaction and largely unconscious. Of course, the problem with this strategy is obvious. Avoiding triggers means avoiding lots of life.
However, time does bring a silver lining. To be honest, it is so slim at first that it barely glimmers. However, over time, it widens into something you can grasp and use like a shield. The silver lining is awareness. Awareness gives you the ability to identify triggers. Once you can identify them, you can prepare for them. The truth is some triggers will never completely fade, but when you know what to expect, their impact lessens. This Christmas, I knew what lay in the box of ornaments. When that particular star was in my hands, I chose for it to be – a star.