Trauma and Grief:
Being Triggered versus Being Cued
When grief is traumatic, our body responds in intense ways, sometimes years after the loss. We may hear her favorite song, smell his cologne, see a mother and a baby, or drive past a certain place, and emotions, thoughts, memories and intense physiological reactions, including increased pulse and blood pressure, may occur in reaction to the stimulus. This is often referred to in grief and trauma studies as the "trigger."
I don't use the word "triggered" in my work with traumatic grief for a number of reasons.
Instead, I often use the word "cued" because when we encounter others, words, settings, memories, or some other sensory experience that cause deeply disturbing feelings or strong reactions of the mind and body, an excitation of the nervous system, this is a cue of sorts. It is the provision of a sign or a hint, asking us to pay attention to whatever is happening in that moment and then going deeper into what's under the obvious. This takes a lot of practice.
The invitation before us is one of nonjudgmental curiosity and approaching the cue with tenderness toward our fear, apprehension, and grief.
If it's too much, we can back off a little. Wait. And try again. And again.
If it's still too much, perhaps we feel unsafe with the cues, we can get some (competent) professional support from a very well-trained person in traumatic grief (be careful- many who claim to be grief experts are not).
I see this process every single day in the many animals we've rescued from torture and abuse at The Selah House Respite Center and Carefarm. Our animals perceive cues, reminding them of their past trauma and pain. This incites fear, panic, and sometimes terror. They run, hide, or freeze. Slowly, over time, as they start to feel safe (this is key for us as humans too), they will approach the cue.
Sometimes, repeated encounters with the cue are necessary to calm their body and their minds.
But when they do so and are met with compassion and love, even amidst their terror and panic, eventually the cue dissipates into a deepened understanding of the purity in their pain- and quite frankly their grief - and they learn to cope with their own unique cues.
In some cases, the cues dissipate or disappear. Even if they don't, however, we can learn to respect them, listen to their message, and build the muscle we need to cope when we are cued.
© Dr Joanne Cacciatore, 1999, 2011, 2016