At the very first support group meeting I attended I kept hearing a word repeatedly that, in the context, didn’t make sense to me. The word was trigger; a word I associated with guns and being “trigger happy” so it confused me as to why I kept hearing about it in a pregnancy and infant loss support group. I quickly learned that a trigger is something I would encounter indefinitely in my grief journey and was something I needed to learn more about.
A trigger is something that sets off a memory or flashback, transporting the person back to the event of their trauma. Have you experienced one? Multiple? I have and whether it’s an in an over the top display of emotion or a quiet burning of rage, triggers cause an intense emotional reaction for the person experiencing it. A few months after we lost Caleb, my husband and I went to therapy for support and when she told us that we were suffering the effects of PTSD after the losses of our four babies, I was unsure as to the validity of the diagnosis. Afterall, the only PTSD I had ever heard of was soldiers coming back from war who had difficulty assimilating back into civilian life. But as she walked us through what PTSD looks like, that trigger word began creeping into the conversation once more and I realized that I was triggered all the time!
It’s not uncommon in your first year to feel perpetually triggered – you’re essentially an exposed nerve that feels EVERYTHING and it all feels painful. As you move further along your grief journey you begin to notice that there are things that creep up that cause you to feel extra pain. Extra emotional. Extra angry or cry-y. This is where triggers come into play because that intense emotional reaction is the result of something triggering you.
Triggers are most often activated by one of the five senses. A smell, a piece of music, a place, a article of clothing – they can all trigger a mostly negative emotional response. I saved the blanket Caleb spent four days in the hospital in and huffed it like a teenager huffing paint fumes on the regular. It made me feel close to him and when the blanket’s smell began to fade, I lost my shit. I sobbed bitterly because I couldn’t bear the thought of losing another thing that was so precious to me and connected me to my sweet boy. I’ve also talked repeatedly about my disdain for Halloween because that remains, to this day, one of my biggest triggers.
Triggers make you feel off center – you don’t feel quite right and it’s challenging to identify how you’re feeling and why you’re feeling that way. My husband expresses all of his feelings through anger and so when I kept pestering him in the early days about why he was so angry, he blurted out that his son died and that was the reason. He couldn’t pin point anything specifically – he was simply triggered and expressing it through anger, because his beloved boy had died. Triggers are personal and unique to the individual – Scott and I are not triggered the same way despite sharing the same loss.
There are different types of triggers but for the most part, the triggers Grief Warriors experience are trauma triggers rather than emotional triggers. A trauma trigger is a psychological stimulus that provokes the recollection of a previous traumatic experience. I think we can all agree that the death of your baby is a traumatic experience and trauma rewires our brains. What I find interesting is that the stimulus that causes the trigger may not be traumatic in and of itself – it could be something superficial or not directly related to the trauma. For me, Halloween isn’t directly related to Caleb’s death in any way. It’s not the same month, it’s not a holiday I cared much about, and it’s never been particularly important to me.
NOTHING has affected me as greatly as the Halloween trigger. It made no sense to me and I think that’s why my initial reaction seemed to come out of no where. I couldn’t predict it because it was something so foreign to me. Predictable vs Non-predictable triggers is a tough needle to thread as far as getting to know them. I now know that Halloween is a predictable trigger but in the beginning I never saw it coming. The non-predictable triggers are what get me the most because they seem to come out of nowhere, like a throat punch from a ninja. Whereas, the predictable triggers seem easier to understand because they’re, well, predictable. Raise your hand if you hated pregnant women or the baby aisle in any store after the loss of your beloved. Both hands raised over here. I HATED pregnant women and it felt justified. They had what I wanted and what I had devastatingly lost. Pregnant women who complained sent me into a blind rage and my friend Janet and I began to call them “fatties” as a salve to our broken hearts. A little mean girl-ish? *hangs head in shame* Yes. My anger was palpable and I needed someone or something to focus it on so I chose pregnant women while secretly praying they wouldn’t become a part of this shitty club none of us asked to be a part of. Being triggered by pregnancy seems normal to me… something to be expected.
Not all triggers are so easily categorized for me, however. There are some triggers I had to unearth after years of digging and doing grief work. Some triggers are external, such as Halloween or pregnancy. Others, however, are internal and those little bastards are harder to root out and identify. After loads of therapy and grief work, I unerarthed a trove of internal triggers rolling around in this noggin of mine. The two biggest are feeling out of control and not feeling enough. I have a borderline psychotic need for control – I hate surprises, I am highly risk-averse and do literally everything within my power to control everything within my power. When my living kids do something like begin to cross the street before looking, I lose my shit. If I can’t get my husband to see things my way and why his propensity for skiing off dangerous cliffs is moronic at his age and with 1000 kids, I lose my shit. Shit is officially lost. Then, since our society loves to promote a billion products and ad campaigns that tell us on the daily how inept and not enough we are, I can fall into the trap of subscribing to the notion that I’m not enough as I am. If I wore this outfit or got lasik or a boob job or whatever than I’d finally be enough. If I never yelled at my kids or dressed them impeccably or if they never, ever, acted poorly or ridiculously then maybe I’d be enough. If I could make my husband love every single thing about me or if I had a flat stomach or whatever, I’d be enough.
These internal triggers can get you quick. And they take me back to feeling out of control when Caleb died because he died of a cord accident and there’s not a damn thing I could have done to prevent it. When I don’t feel like I’m enough as I am, it takes me back to feeling like I should have been able to save my babies because they were in my body and it was my job to protect them. I wasn’t enough to save them and it destroys me. The internal triggers are unpredictable because they manifest in such a variety of ways.
This month is pregnancy and infant loss awareness month and also the start of the slow march towards the holiday season. TRIGGERS ABOUND, Y’ALL. So this month we are going to be examining triggers, talking about ways to manage them and highlighting grief warriors who are walking this road along with us. Triggers are inevitable but they don’t have to overrun our lives. Keep hope alive, Dear Ones. We are wrapping our arms around our community and telling you that you are not alone and that there is always help and hope available to you from #teamtbsp.