My dad loved to hunt geese as much for the ritual of explaining and participating in it with other people. The goose sound I heard immediately conjured an image of him. And I suddenly burst into tears as a familiar sadness filled my body.
What I experienced, experts say, is a grief trigger. Well after the intense grief of an immediate loss has faded, and you think you’ve moved on, something happens out of the blue to revive it.
“A lot of people use the metaphor of waves of grief — just when you think you are getting back on your feet, you are knocked over by a wave that you didn’t see coming, says Camille Wortman, professor emeritus at Stony Brook University and an expert on grief and bereavement. “I think that’s a good metaphor.”
Many people who have experienced loss will have experience with grief triggers, but research about them is limited. A recent study noted there had been only a handful of research papers on the phenomenon in the past two decades — despite how significant such triggers are in the “grief recovery trajectory.”
Recently, experts have started to use the term grief “activator,” rather than “trigger.” There’s “the realization that for a lot of folks, hearing words that are associated with how their person died can also be activating. And so, every time we use the word trigger, it can call to mind ideas of homicide and gun violence, anything that involves a trigger,” says Jana DeCristofaro, a grief support group facilitator at the Dougy Center, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit group dedicated to supporting grieving children and young adults.
Some grief activators are more predictable than others, like the ones tied to calendar dates, such as holidays, anniversaries and birthdays, and events such as a birth, graduation, wedding or retirement, Wortman said.
Others are tied to our senses, such as hearing a song on the radio that reminds you of the person you lost or eating a food that reminds you of them or seeing someone who looks like them, said Sarah Kroenke, co-founder of the Grief Club of Minnesota.
“What activates grief is the awareness of the loss. It’s something that brings to mind the loss,” says M. Katherine Shear, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and director for the Center for Complicated Grief.
Annie Sperling’s husband, Adam, died of a virulent type of brain tumor in 2020. Her grief is often activated on special milestone celebrations, but also by movies, food and sporting events that her husband loved.
“There are times where I’ve been driving in the car and all of a sudden a song comes on the radio that reminds me of Adam, and I’ll break down in tears,” Sperling says. “And it’s a song that I’ve heard a million times, but sometimes the words or just the music itself can tug at your heart strings.”
In my case, after hearing the call of those geese, I spent the next several days missing my dad, feeing sad even as I was a happy new mom. Sperling notes that her activators can evoke a “multitude of emotions, including happiness, sadness, anger, disbelief and doubt.”
Grief triggers are hard to avoid and can occur many years after the death of a loved one, Wortman says. But she and other experts said there are things that bereaved people can do to try to manage these moments.
●Create a plan in advance for the predictable calendar dates that trigger sadness and grief. The plan should be realistic and simple, Kroenke says. “Have a moment of silence, light a candle, so that that day doesn’t come and go and you feel like we didn’t do anything to acknowledge that person, but also that it doesn’t feel too overwhelming with the anticipation of those holidays coming up,” she says.
Sperling says planning for these calendar days helps her a lot: “I’m not just preparing the physical part of it, it’s the emotional preparedness, as well. And if I have a plan in place and if I know how that day will be spent, I tend to feel a bit more at ease with things.”
●DeCristofaro suggests building up your capacity to deal with these difficult time periods by establishing a tool kit of activities or resources you can turn to when a grief activator occurs. Kroenke and DeCristofaro both suggest having a person that you can call for support, journaling and taking a deep breath. Therapy, support groups, listening to music, exercise, meditation and baking also help Sperling cope with her grief activators.
●Experts also emphasize the importance of self-compassion when a grief activator occurs. “We want [bereaved individuals] to take care of themselves, to be compassionate toward themselves and not to be self critical,” Shear says.
When we give ourselves permission to have our emotions, then sometimes grief activators don’t feel so scary or overwhelming, DeCristofaro says.
●All the experts say it’s important to remember that grief activators are a part of the grieving process. “In the clinical world of providing grief support, [they are] not viewed as a step backward, but rather just a natural and normal part of the grieving process,” Kroenke says. But, if the activators start to feel unmanageable, experts also advise bereaved individuals to speak to a grief therapist to process any potential unresolved issues.
DeCristofaro suggests trying to shift from viewing grief activators as a negative experience to an opportunity to feel connected to the person that we lost, despite the feelings that it may evoke.
Grief activators remind us “of the reality that the people in our life who have died meant something to us. They played a meaningful role in our lives and that they continue to play a meaningful role in our life even if they are not here in their physical form,” DeCristofaro says.
Not long ago, the anniversary of my father’s birthday passed. It’s hard with two small kids to take time to mark that remembrance. But I thought of him and took a walk around the neighborhood, something we did together often when he was alive. Although I will miss him, I was able to remember him and spend time with him, if only in my mind.