Voices of Experience: The Trouble With Triggers

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by Harry Proudfoot, Walking with Jane

One of my most painful, hurtful, appalling experiences occurred the first time I went to the grocery store after Robby died . . . Every shelf, every aisle reminded me of my dead son. Either the item was something he hated or something he loved. Green beans and hot dogs and peanut butter sent stabs of pain through me.
~ Harriet Sarnoff Schiff

I finished redoing the living room today. Six weeks ago, I ordered two love seats to replace the couch and love seat Jane and I bought when we built this house just over twenty years ago. I’d finally figured out that even with new slipcovers, those two pieces set me off every time I entered the room.

In the process of getting everything in the room balanced—I’ve never studied feng shui, but I know when things are arranged right I feel better than when they aren’t—I decided to remove the next level of knick-knacks that I have kept out as reminders of the couple we were. Fifty-five months and 15 days is long enough to keep the two doll-sized mugs embossed with "My Sweetheart” out where they can remind me every day of what I’ve lost.

That seems silly as I look up at the collage of pictures of Jane on the wall across from me. It dominates the room in ways no collection of small glass rabbits and tiny teapots could ever hope to. Equally, each piece of furniture has one or more of the cross-stitch pillows Jane made for us on it. But neither the photographs nor the pillows ambush me when I walk into the room the way those small pieces did.

That’s the trouble with triggers: they lurk in the corners and catch you by surprise. They can turn a good day on its head in an instant. And sometimes they get you even when you know they are there. Some nights, I sit across from that collage and nothing happens. Then, I look up and the loneliness and loss descend like a brick and hit me in the head with concussion-inducing force.

And the things are everywhere. I’m teaching a journalism course in Boston this summer. To get there, I have to drive a portion of the route we took to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute seemingly every week in the last months of Jane’s life. It’s a route I’ve driven often enough since that it feels pretty safe to me most of the time.

But one Friday this month they were cutting the trees back from along the road, as they had been that fall. The sight of the men and the machines took me back in an instant and suddenly the depression rolled in and crushed me.

Of course the real crushers are, generally, around the house. A pen, a piece of furniture, a candle, a bit of ribbon, the scrape of a chair on the deck—anything can set us off, especially in the early days of grief. What astounds me is how susceptible to those triggers we remain even years later. You would think that, eventually, simple household items we see and use every day would lose their ability to hurt us. But you’d be wrong.

And there is no simple logic to what hurts us and what doesn’t. In my case, the couch and love seat created a constant ache, no matter how I rearranged them or covered their original fabric with a slip cover. But I sleep every night in the same bed Jane and I bought when we got married, surrounded by the same chest, dresser and bedside table bought at the same time.

Of course I moved that furniture out of the bedroom it was in and repainted the walls in the new room a radically different color. The furniture is also set up in a very different way than it was when Jane was alive. I also replaced the mattress. I suspect somewhere in there is the reason I can sleep there comfortably. I also know that I had real trouble sleeping before I did all that.

But removing triggers also comes with a price—and I’m not talking about the financial cost. When I watched the love seat and couch going out the door Thursday—even though they were only going as far as the basement—it was an emotional experience. It took us three months to find those pieces 20 years ago. We lived on them all summer and all winter. That couch is where Jane fell asleep in my arms many nights. It is where I massaged her feet almost every night. We watched the Red Sox finally win a World Series there—and watched them come back from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees.

Every stick of furniture, every cup, every plate, every knife, every fork, every spoon, every vase and every candle holder is pregnant with memory. And every one of them can trigger a wave of grief—just as giving them away or replacing them can.

A friend, who lost her husband of fewer years well before I lost Jane, tells me she still encounters things that trigger new waves of grief. She expects that will continue to be the case for as long as she lives. And I believe her. We don’t stop loving someone when they die—and we don’t stop missing them.

We do find ways to cope with that heartache. We do find ways to deal with the triggers that set off new waves of grief. Sometimes, we embrace those triggers until, by force of repetition, they begin to lose their power over us. Sometimes, we find we can avoid specific triggers by avoiding particular stores or places that meant too much to ever lose their power. Sometimes, we repaint or redecorate or repurpose a room. Sometimes, we simply endure.

There is no right answer for any of this. There is only what works for us as individuals in our particular circumstances. And no matter what we do, specific days, specific moments, specific incidents, will jump on us when we least expect it and take us back into the darkest times our souls experience.

But we persevere. We find purpose again. We find life again. We keep moving forward.

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