How To Recognize And Overcome Your Grief Triggers In 5 Steps

Identify the source and symptoms so you can better cope when triggered by grief.

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What does it mean to recognize your grief triggers? If you’ve lost someone you love, you've experienced grief in one of its many forms. 

You may have learned about the 5 stages of grief model attributed to Dr. Elisabeth Kübler Ross that includes shock/denial, anger, sadness/depression, bargaining and acceptance.

You may have also learned by experience that this emotional grieving process isn’t linear in its steps toward healing. You may have skipped some altogether and gotten stuck in others.


So, what does it mean to recognize your grief triggers?

Recognizing your grief triggers is all about the ability to have an awareness and preparedness for those expected and unexpected jolts that bring up memories of your loss and put your emotions in the spin cycle.

It's important to identify and recognize your grief triggers so that you can learn to anticipate them, brace for impact, and recover quickly.

The goal is to minimize the stress reaction in your mind, body, spirit, and ultimately, your choices and consequences.

While anything that brings up your loss and creates pain for you is considered a trigger, there are some common triggers to become familiar with as you increase your awareness.


RELATED: How To Cope With Grief When You've Suffered From A Devastating Loss

Acute grief

If your loss is recent, you're likely experiencing what is known as acute grief.

The most common emotion of acute grief is a deep indescribable sadness and true longing for your loved one’s presence.

Common grief triggers

Experiencing sensory stimuli that are associated with a memory of your loved one. For example, hearing a song they sang, seeing a movie you watched together, or smelling a cologne they loved.

Special occasions, holidays, milestones and celebrations where their absence is highlighted by an empty chair.

Physically being at a place you had been to or planned to go to with your loved one.


News of others dying in a similar fashion.

Learn how to recognize and identify your grief triggers.

It’s all about building awareness and getting to know yourself on an intimate level. Many people do well journaling their grief triggers and noting exactly what corresponds to their thoughts, emotions, body, and behaviors.

1. Thought responses

Something that triggers your grief could be disbelief, confusion, preoccupation, dreams, forgetfulness, restlessness, needing to talk about your loved one’s death, avoiding talking about your loss so others don’t feel uncomfortable, etc.

2. Emotional responses

These triggers typically include feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, hopelessness, shock, yearning, relief, numbness, etc.


3. Physical responses

These include muscle pain and tension, changes in appetite, sleep, digestion and/or energy, clenching teeth, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest or throat, nausea, headache, etc.

4. Behavioral responses

These look like avoiding people, yelling at people, stopping activities that once brought joy, pretending to be OK, quitting goals and objectives, losing interest in previously motivating things including self-care, etc.

Sometimes, you have to go backward before you can move forward.

For example, you may first notice something you're doing that's out of the ordinary for you — it's a behavior that's actually a reaction to the stress you are feeling from the trigger.


RELATED: What Grief Really Means And How To Know What's Normal Or Healthy When You're Grieving

Here's a 5-step guide to recognizing your grief triggers.

1. Ask yourself a series of questions about your behaviors and observe yourself from a place of non-judgment.                                         

"How am I showing up — or not showing up — in life that looks like a stress reaction?"

2. Then, connect the physical feeling that's happening.                                                                                                                               

"What is the feeling in my body when I show up this way?"

3. Next, name the emotion that goes with it.                                                                                                                                                   

"What am I really feeling, emotionally, when I show up this way?"


4. And then ask yourself about your thought processes.                                                                                                                                 

"What exactly am I thinking when all this is happening? What thought is behind all of this?"

5. Finally, pin down the actual source of the grief trigger.

"What happened, when did it happen, where was I at, who was involved, why did it remind me of my loss?"

RELATED: The 5 Stages Of Grief — Plus 6 We Don't Realize Are Part Of The Grieving Process

Now that you've learned to recognize your triggers, you can create a plan to cope with them.

For the ‘expected’ grief triggers, like special occasions and anniversary dates, plan ahead.

Rather than anticipate them with fear or let them blindside you when the date on the calendar arrives, be prepared with something uplifting. 


Avoidance might seem like an answer, but it's just another type of conflict and is not the same as coping.

Celebrate their life and your love for them in a way that promotes your healing. You can invite friends and family to talk and share favorite memories and laughter.

Or, do something for someone else in your loved one’s memory — you can’t help but help yourself when you help someone else.

Write a letter to your loved one and share with them how you’ve grown through your grief because they were in your life. Include a favorite memory. Maybe make this a new tradition for yourself.

For the ‘unexpected’ grief triggers that you cannot truly plan for, plan for just that.

Plan to remember what you know. Because you've loved, you will also hurt.


Remind yourself that the pain you feel in the moment of the trigger is because you have also loved.

Conjure up a happy memory, a grateful breath, and let the tears flow. Allow yourself to feel the emotion that comes up, acknowledge it, and release it with awareness of knowing why you feel it — love— and choose to now love yourself through the pain.

Have a safe place to go or someone trusted to call. You can also have a safe place to escape to, mentally. Choose a calming location — your happy place — whether it's the beach or the mountains. 

Connect to your senses and take a mental vacation. This is a mindfulness/mediation exercise.

While using conscious breathing to calm your nervous system — inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth at a slower rate — focus in your mind’s eye on the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of this place.


This exercise will bring you out of your stress reaction and into a calm, relaxed state.

There will always be something to remind you of those you’ve lost.

As you grow your awareness in recognition and preparedness and cooperate with time as a gift and healer, your grief triggers can become a positive reminder of your loved one.


After all, you never want to forget them. Consider choosing a beautiful memory or photo to see in your mind’s eye and to embrace when a trigger is set in motion.

You’ll feel gratitude and love in place of all that previously haunted you.

When grief becomes too much

Grief is a natural response to the death of someone you loved. And the array of feelings and reactions can be intense and extreme early on.

For most, this will wane over time with a community of support, tools for stress management, emotional awareness, self-care, and the ability to shift to a focus on gratitude.

For others, grief can be prolonged and negatively impact physical and mental health, as well as relationships and productivity.


Grief left unresolved can get stuck like a sock in the washer door gasket destined to be spun and wrung over and over again.

Reach out to a professional — their hand is there to hold and guide you through the grief cycle and along your path to healing.

RELATED: 3 Steps To Mourn The Death Of A Loved One Who Hurt You

If you are experiencing prolonged grief that’s negatively affecting your ability to function in daily life, or if you’re having thoughts of harming yourself or others, please contact The National Hopeline Network, The Compassionate Friends, or GriefNet. For a more extensive list of resources, please visit The Grief Resource Network.


Ann Papayoti, PCC, is an author, speaker, and coach helping people untangle from their past, heal their hearts, and unlock their best life. She is the co-author of the intimate self-help guide, The Gift of Shift. For more information on how she can help you, visit her website.