For years, I avoided train tracks.
After my husband, Bill, completed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train, I couldn’t bear to see them. I found alternate routes to wherever I was going, creatively avoiding the stretch of railway that lines the coast in our Southern California beach town. I once rode in a car with my back to the window for six hours to avoid seeing tracks.
And it wasn’t just train tracks. I avoided restaurants we used to frequent, songs that reminded me of our wedding, even friends that we knew and loved as a couple. I walked around as a shell of a person, avoiding anything that might trigger my grief.
But grief doesn’t disappear when you avoid the triggers. Rather, it becomes a fearful and hopeless feeling, one to be evaded or, better yet, squashed entirely.
Triggers are a troubling part of the grieving process for most people because they are completely out of our control. You can’t help that the grocery store is playing a song that reminds you of your mother, or even that the changing seasons brings back a memory of your brother. Knowing that a trigger can appear or occur anywhere—and out of nowhere—can add anxiety and helplessness to your grief.
But the thing about triggers is, they rarely trigger anything sad. Your emotional response is the grief of something that was happy and beautiful. My wedding song triggers the memory of promising to love Bill forever. Our friends trigger memories of the happy times we so often shared together. While I will always be sad that Bill is no longer here, I can’t possibly wish those happy memories away.
Those memories made my life what it is, and now, those memories are a testament to how much love I had (and still have) for my husband.
Triggers will never disappear. But they can be transformed.
Rather than feeling the pain of loss with every trigger, we can train our brains to reflect—gratefully—on the beautiful memory associated with that trigger. Gratitude is a critical part of the healing process because only gratitude can counteract the darkness of grief. Gratitude brings with it a sense of hope and purpose, both of which are critical in your journey to feel joy again.
Feeling gratitude doesn’t come without effort. Training your mind requires you to actively alter your brain’s response to certain situations from grief to thanksgiving. Avoiding a trigger will never allow you do this. Rather than stifling the pain, allow yourself to feel it. Then allow yourself to see the beauty in the memory. Live in that memory, and say a prayer of gratitude that you experienced it.
Today, I can see the train tracks where Bill’s life ended from every room in my house. Next door, to my right, is where Bill and I got married. Next door, to my left, is where we held his memorial. When I hear train whistles, I think of them as Bill reaching out to me, telling me everything is okay and that he’s no longer in pain. When I go to a grocery store we used to frequent, I receive hugs from our old friends and acquaintances. Rather than feeling sad, their memories, along with my own, keep Bill’s spirit alive.
Triggers are everywhere, and that’s simply because love and beauty are everywhere too.
Author: Kristi Hugstad
Image: Author’s Own; Sydney Sims/Unsplash
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Sara Kärpänen