I take the exit for Herndon Avenue. My heart starts to race as I approach that intersection. I look to my right, and my eyes linger on the stone statue of Jesus with hands spread, that circular drive, the white façade of the towering buildings. I feel a little queasy.
Although my husband only spent three days in that hospital during his cancer journey, I remember it felt like an eternity. I had to take him in after his tumor ruptured. They performed an emergency surgery. We spent two sleepless nights together tossing and turning in the nightmare of our new reality.
Both the surgeon and the oncologist told me he only had a short time to live. My worst fears were coming true.
My husband graduated to Heaven less than two months later.
For a long time, I had trouble driving down Herndon. I knew I had to pass that hospital and the anxiety would rise up from the depths of my stomach. I would start to feel sweaty. My hands would shake on the steering wheel. I would find myself frozen in time. The scenes and conversations from our time there would repeat in my mind.
That place, that intersection is a trigger for me. Triggers are common for widows and people in general who have lost a loved one or endured a traumatic event. In a simple sense, a trigger is a sight, sound or smell that brings a person back to a memory that causes her to review the death or traumatic event over and over in her mind.
My choices: avoid that street altogether or lean in and process the memories.
According to Jill Harrington LaMorie, a licensed clinical social worker with Open to Hope ministry: “Most are not aware that death by traumatic means qualifies as a traumatic stressor and leaves the survivor more vulnerable to post traumatic stress in addition to grief.”
I didn’t think about the trauma I’d been through over my husband’s death until one day when I was sitting in circle with a group of young widows and one said she had PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Prior to that, I always connected PTSD with those who have experienced trauma because of military service. My dad counsels war veterans. He tells me PTSD is common among them. I never thought about PTSD in the context of other types of death and the grief journey.
Then I started paying attention.
I listened to another widow friend unfold the details of her husband’s death because of cancer. As she spoke in a trembling voice, I knew her memories had triggers like mine. She affirmed that going certain places or even seeing certain people threw her back to memories of his death. In some ways, it’s like a repeating track in the mind that just needs someone or something to press play.
Patty Behrens, my friend and therapist who specializes in grief and loss, says trauma is common in her clients. She says it’s especially prevalent among young widows and those who have lost children when there was a sudden or traumatic death. This can manifest into PTSD, depending on the length and symptoms of the actual diagnoses.
I still drive by that hospital almost every day but my reaction is not the same as it was two years ago. Thankfully, with God’s help, I have been able to work through these triggers. I had to create new grooves for my mind so it wouldn’t play that track. I learned to pray, recite scripture and deliberately move my mind to think about good memories with my husband.
I know navigating trauma is unique process for every person. For some, it might require counseling. For others, it might require the support of community. For others, that may be a personal journey leaning into the memories and learning to redeem them with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is no shame in any of these. It’s another reminder that every grief journey is unique. We need to offer up grace to ourselves and others as they steer through this difficult journey called grief.
Have you experienced these kinds of triggers or memories in your own grief journey? How do you face them? Please comment or share this article with a friend who might benefit.
Have you missed the other articles in our Navigating Grief as Life Moves Forward series? Check them out here:
The Garden – an introduction to the series
Grieving Together – an article on grieving with children
Choosing Joy – a guest post about a spouse choosing joy even on a long cancer journey
When a Grandparent Dies – a guest post about how one mom is navigating her own grief and grief with her kids
Facing Triggers and Trauma – an article about steering through grief when triggers and trauma arise