The Trigger of Grief

In the work of recovery, we address the danger of triggers. Its very word itself suggests the power to cause us harm:

“Something that precipitates a particular event or situation; To set off; initiate; To fire or explode.”

On one August morning of 2003, I encounter such a trigger. The phone rang. My dad was dead.

My grief, for the next year and a half, was an alarming, unexpected reality. And each subsequent “anniversary” proves equally tricky also. Both defy what I thought I would – or should – be experiencing.

After all, coming from an abusive childhood, I didn’t think the loss of this pain-inflicting parent would register as significantly as it did.

But it did. And, because it did, I had to deal with a recovery factor I didn’t see coming: grief.

How many of us who deal with addiction/recovery link our challenges to the grief issue?

It can be the thing which drives the addiction; it can also threaten and compromise our current vulnerable recovery. It is, therefore, wise to not underestimate the triggering potential in that grief and in each reminding anniversary of the hurtful circumstance.

When I was eight years old, I attended a Girl Scouts summer camp. In this setting, there were numerous activities, all designed to develop and sharpen skills. And so, we were assigned different tasks. Part of mine included food preparation. That meant using a can opener. Simple enough, right?

The embarrassing truth was it was not simple. Growing up, I had only used an electric can opener. But “roughing it” meant there was only the handheld, non-electric option available. A troop leader asked me to open a can of beans; I asked her for help. I remember she had this “What’s wrong with you?” kind of expression on her face. She then grabbed the can opener and opened it herself, letting out a frustrated sigh.

What did this memory have to do with my grief? I was confronted with a simple fact: I often still took a more passive approach: to my issues, to my recovery, to truth itself. My dad’s death changed that.

My grief experience exploded. Stuff I’d addressed in therapy, stuff I’d written about resurfaced. The unaddressed reality of how I’d feel when my abusive dad died touched other pain, other grief of people, relationships, opportunities and even my childhood pets. Everything was raw and exposed.

Nothing could prepare me for that. That was a discovery I had to face for myself.

My issues had always been there. But now, I had to face them. I needed to operate my own can opener.

Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life. Proverbs 4:23

Ah – issues! Whether it was loss, painful memories, forgiveness or fears, things had accumulated. There’s a familiar saying, “opening up a can of worms.” And that’s what was happening.

After my dad’s death, I had to re-enter therapy (grief therapy now), and further confront my cumulative junk. I had to be honest with how much I had been struggling. I had to confront the reality I would struggle in the future, especially as each reminder/anniversary rolled around. I had to accept I was even more fragile than I believed I was. I needed to stare down something else unsettling: my faith was shaken, complicated by even more insecurity about my ability to believe “enough” in The Most High.

“…I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” Mark 9:24

I felt like I failed to correctly answer the faith question from the preceding verse:

“… If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.” Mark 9:23

Now, in my grief, I needed to challenge my doubts, again, in a different way, in an updated way.

What did I believe – about anything – NOW?

He saith unto them, “But whom say ye that I am?” Matthew 16:15

I needed to decide to believe the Savior for myself. It needed to be a daily- and constant choice, whether or not I felt the experience, the joy, the faith, the peace or the feelings.

I had to be honest about everything I was feeling: the doubts, the fear, the rage, the hurt, the exhaustion, the avoidance, the blame I held against myself, my dad and my Creator.

What I’ve realized, years later, is both my faith and my grief will be challenging for me, even under the best of circumstances. This is something that applies to most of us. Human beings like visible, concrete things. We especially want that security when we are at our most vulnerable and scared. Divine ways, however, are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Despite it feeling every bit personal, going through anything challenging, grief included, is not a sinister personal attack against any of us; it is just life.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. Ecclesiastes 9:11

All go through pain and loss; no one is exempt (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).

Life is filled with cycles, with repetition of pain, death and loss. Pain-filled reminders litter our days. Unhappy anniversaries exist. With each repetition, issues and hurts can present themselves in new ways. But Elohim is constant, no matter what.

“… I change not…” Malachi 3:6

I don’t fully understand the significance to the repetition. There’s still a lot of things unresolved.

But The Most High loves, forgives, helps, understands and comforts us, regardless of our failings, relapses and doubts.

What is your grief/painful anniversary moment which impacts your addiction and recovery? There’s no shame in being affected. It’s not a spiritual or moral blight on who we are. It is proof we are human, flawed and fragile.

There is help and hope for us all. Knowing about these unsuspecting triggers to our recovery experience can possibly minimize the blindsiding effect of traumatic pain.

Tips to Help You With Your Grief:

    1. Consider the year after your loss as a “season of grief,” a time to cycle through important dates and memories and to progress through the stages of grief.

    2. Get help from a grief recovery support group, pastor, or psychotherapist.

    3. Take the initiative to talk about your grief over and over again with people you trust. (Don’t feel sorry for yourself or isolate if people seem to be avoiding you, this is simply due to their embarrassment of not knowing what to say.)

    4. When your grief is “triggered” by your associations with your loved one (e.g., special dates, places, experiences, songs, smells) go with it (as long as you’re in a safe place) by feeling your feelings and reminiscing over your memories.

    5. Facilitate your grief recovery by doing things like revisiting the grave site or the place where the deceased’s ashes were disbursed, listening to a tape of the memorial service, reminiscing over past memories and associations, and reviewing old pictures and memorabilia.
    6. Write and share with a support person a letter or series of letters to your loved one and/or to God to help you sort through your feelings.

    7. Pray and read the Psalms in the Bible for comfort (e.g., the Psalms of Lament, Psalm 3, 7, 13, 25, 44, 74, 79, 80).
    William J. Gaultiere, Ph. D
    Executive Director, New Hope Counseling Ministry
    Used with permission.

Knowledge is power; application of knowledge is power. Apply this power as you face you own pain, loss and grief issues today.