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Partner Loss & Triggering Events

“developing emotional resilience against retriggering”

You lose your partner and suddenly your entire world has changed. Life has come to a screeching halt and you feel nothing will ever be the same again, except maybe for this deep sadness, excruciating emotional pain, and intense feeling of emptiness. A well-meaning friend reassures you that you can do this and explains to you that all you have to do is make it through the first year. Your initial thought is you do not know if you can make it another five minutes, much less an entire year! And that’s about the time you realize the year ahead of you will be filled with a barrage of constant reminders of the person you will no longer share those events with, and the painful reminder of your loss.

The initial pain of a primary loss or trauma experience comes with a series of subsequent losses that each hold the power of taking us back to the primary loss. The result is re-living the pain and trauma experience all over again. For a person whose loss of their best friend and life partner is devastatingly life changing, this is not good news, and the calendar is full of events that trigger a primary or secondary loss. In the same way the impact of a huge boulder thrown into a pond creates a series of ripples that spread throughout the pond, the loss of your partner will be triggered by a long list of secondary losses throughout the year. Not celebrating your birthday with you, being unable to attend a family wedding, missing a high school graduation, or not being there to hear about how your day went are all examples of secondary losses that trigger you back to the primary loss.

Triggering can be something read, seen, or heard that arouse feelings or memories associated with a particular traumatic experience. In this case, the loss of your partner.

The day of the week, the day of the month, an anniversary, birthday, holiday, sporting event, friend or family gathering, hobby, movie, song, play, book – the list is endless because memories associated with loss can be endless.

There are times when you can feel the trigger event approaching in your physical body, and other times when you just have a sense in your emotions and thoughts of impending sadness or loss. Sometimes the trigger event ambushes you, and you never see it coming until it hits you. What can seem like a perfectly normal day can erupt into an emotional explosion that leaves you broken and tearful, taken back to the original painful experience of your loss.

While triggering and retriggering is not something you can control, you can do your best to prepare. Getting ahead of the trigger is possible. If you know a potential trigger is near, you can get out in front of it and choose what you will do about it. An example would be your loved one’s birthday. Deciding ahead of time what you plan to do on that day is taking control of something that is within your ability to choose. While you cannot bring your loved one back, you can choose how you will celebrate their birthday.

And regarding that well-meaning friend, don’t be too hard on them. They want to be helpful. It just takes a strong faith, hard work, and time to feel normal again. That process will likely take longer than a year, but you will be ok. Lean into your grief and move toward the future one moment at a time.

Retriggering Exercise

Take a sheet of paper and orient it “landscape” in front of you. Draw a horizontal line the length of the page in the center and mark the months of the year along the line. Above and below the line, list any trigger events you can think about next to the appropriate month. On the back of the page, list the major events and begin a list of ideas for how you can get ahead of the trigger event and prepare how you will spend the day or handle the event.

You will find a Triggering Exercise in the resources area.