This will not be an easy post for me to write because it will require me to reveal some of my darkest pain. I wanted to write it to help others who are experiencing the same issues.
What do you think of when you think of the word trigger? Most of us think of a mechanism that sets something in motion. We think of a switch triggering a bomb to explode. We think of a gun trigger firing a bullet when it’s pulled. We think of a rude person triggering someone’s anger in a store or on the road. Grief has it’s own triggers too and they don’t just affect parents who have lost children.
A grief trigger can be your deceased loved one’s favorite song playing on the radio. It can be smelling the aroma of a meal they used to cook for you or catching a whiff of their perfume/cologne. It can be hearing someone say their name and looking around for them, only to realize they are nowhere to be found. It can be revisiting places you used to frequent together.. a coffee shop, a clothing store, a park, a restaurant, a vacation spot. The result is always the same; It is something that elicits emotion. The emotion that is elicited may change depending on the day, season, how many years it’s been since the person passed away, whether the loss was traumatic, etc.
Most grief triggers elicit pain but some actually elicit happiness. For example, it’s been six years since my mom became an angel and I can now smile sometimes when I smell her perfume instead of bursting into tears. Although, if I’m feeling particularly emotional on a certain day, the scent might still cause me tears and to feel that twinge of pain like it did in the beginning.
All of that being said, I wanted the focus of this post to be on grief triggers specifically for those who have lost babies. This seems to be a topic that many people who have not lost babies have a very difficult time understanding. I’m going to give you a glimpse into my world for a couple minutes to hopefully help you understand what others like me are going through.
I’ve already stated many times that losing a baby is a hell that cannot be properly explained by anyone, including baby loss parents. We can only describe what life is like for us now. The first grief trigger Brad and I ever experienced regarding Elijah was while we were still in the hospital. My room was thankfully at the end of the maternity ward hallway where I could not hear other mothers and their newborns’ cries. Brad was not spared from that though. During a brief food break, Brad was sitting in the family waiting room. A young father burst into the room and exclaimed with pure joy to his own family that his new child had just been born. Brad felt that sting of pain as he sat there knowing his wife was going through the pain of labor in order to deliver his dead son. He would get no happy ending.
After that, it wasn’t long before we were immersed in the world of being a bereaved parent. I had a panic attack in the middle of a store as we were shopping for funeral clothes. The men’s dress clothing section happened to be right across the aisle from the baby clothing section where we’d picked out Elijah’s gender reveal outfit only a couple weeks prior. I returned to my car in tears several times after shopping at Target because we’d been starting a baby registry there. I found myself unable to go to places we’d frequented while I was pregnant. I instructed my sister to hide my home doppler somewhere I wouldn’t be able to find it. What a cruel twist of fate… the same doppler that brought me unrivaled joy hearing my son’s heartbeat was now part of my nightmares. I became nauseous at the mere sight of the protein powder that I’d drank in a shake the day we found out Elijah was gone. Before Elijah, I’d never really paid much attention to pregnant women, babies, and families with young children. After our loss, suddenly I could not stop seeing them everywhere I went.
It was painful trigger after painful trigger.
Diaper commercials would have me grabbing for the remote control so I change the channel. I was still receiving daily emails from Motherhood Maternity, Babies R Us, and What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I didn’t even want to open them so I could find the links to unsubscribe from the mailing list. I had no idea what to do with my maternity clothes, including the brand new dress, still with tags attached, that I’d bought for the baby shower I never got to have. Elijah’s ultrasound pictures were on the desk in our office. His gender reveal outfit and other baby clothes were scattered throughout the apartment. When I returned home from the hospital, the first thing my sister did was lead me into my bedroom to lay down. I’d completely forgotten that my enormous maternity pillow was still laying on the bed. Not having the emotional strength to move it, I laid down, wrapped my arms around it and sobbed.
We were not as far along as other couples who have stillborn babies. Many couples already have an entire nursery assembled. I’ve heard many stories in my support groups of how incredibly painful that is to come home to. Some couples tear it apart immediately while others close the door and refuse to enter for months. Coming home with empty arms to a home filled with beautiful, joyful, adorable reminders of a precious baby you’ll never get to raise is excruciating. To this day, I can’t handle looking at baby boy clothes and accessories without breaking down. I feel that it is exceptionally cruel because you go from being absolutely over the moon with joy and anticipation to suddenly planning a funeral and buying a burial plot instead of a crib.
So far I’ve only covered the “things” that act as triggers for baby loss parents, but words can be just as painful for us to deal with. People who refuse to mention our child’s name or allow us to talk about our child trigger our grief. Saying things that are hurtful instead of helpful is a trigger. One of the biggest triggers for a large majority of baby loss parents (and couples battling infertility) is pregnancies. It may be a relative, immediate family member, friend, or stranger who has become pregnant in our lives since the loss of our child. Many people who are not walking the baby loss journey simply do not understand how painful pregnancies are for us. They have the misconception that we are angry at the expectant parents, the new baby, or that we are not at all happy for the couple. Please, do not assume that is how we feel. Most of us are happy for the new life but we do not have the emotional capacity to show it or be happy along with everyone else in the “normal” sense. We are not monsters. We are hurting, to the very core of our souls. Pregnancies and new babies are some of the most stark reminders of all that we lost and will never have with our angel baby. We know that not only will we never experience those joys in our own little families but our extended families and friends never will either. My dad will never rock his grandson to sleep. My sister can never teach her nephew how to play hockey. There are a million experiences that will now no longer be, yet we have to watch them play out in front of us each day in other people’s lives. We wonder why we were in the 0.5% of people who left the hospital with empty arms. We wonder if we did something to deserve this horrid fate. The simple summary of this paragraph: we are angry, sad, and depressed that our child died. Please don’t make it into something more personal than that.
The same goes for how things like baby shower invitations, pregnancy announcements, and gender reveals can make many of us cry. They have made me cry. We cry not because we wish that precious baby didn’t exist, but rather because our baby is gone. Being around babies and children is also very difficult for many baby loss parents and those suffering from infertility for the same reasons I’ve already mentioned. That family barbecue or Christmas gathering can be a big trigger as well, with little ones running excitedly around. I hear countless loss parents tell me that their family members or friends just do not understand how or why certain triggers would affect them, especially months or years later, and it’s causing them so much more pain to be misunderstood and invalidated. There’s the parent whose family gets angry at them for not attending a baby shower for a cousin. There’s the parent who is judged for crying after seeing yet another pregnancy announcement on social media. There’s the parent who is told they shouldn’t be sad because they only miscarried and “it wasn’t really a baby yet anyway.” There is the infertile couple whose emotions are often the most forgotten and invalidated because they did not go through a visible loss. Baby loss and infertility are journeys that you simply cannot fully understand unless you’ve been there yourself. The pain is different from any other.
Many people think you only grieve when someone dies. That is not true. You can experience grief from any kind of loss. Divorce or romantic relationships ending, losing a job or career, loss of a friendship, loss of a beloved pet, and loss of certain hopes and dreams, can all cause grief. Infertile couples grieve the children they will never have, much like a baby loss parent grieves for the life their angel baby will never have. Yes, you absolutely can and do grieve for experiences that have never or will never happen.
There is no time limit on grief or on experiencing grief triggers.
I’ve spoken to loss parents who still experience the pain of triggers even decades after their child passed. They may not react to triggers as often or with as much pain as they did when the loss was more fresh but it still hurts nonetheless.
In my other writings, I’ve stressed the fact that it is very important to not judge a loss parent for the specific things they struggle with and the way they grieve. Each grief journey is unique and different. Many of us had traumatic births and/or complications during our pregnancies that can make the whole situation infinitely more painful. Sometimes there is little family support when a couple loses their child. Other times friends turn their backs on loss parents because they can’t handle the grief and don’t know what to do or say. All of those things can compound grief and make it even more difficult to face on a daily basis.
Child loss is an incredibly lonely journey but when those around the loss parents can understand the things that create more pain and grief and work to reduce those, it can make a huge difference. It takes respect. People must respect a loss parent if they say something is a trigger for them and that they cannot handle it right now. Trust that they do not want to feel the way they do. Trust that they are just trying to survive and protect their broken hearts from further damage. Trust that someday they may feel strong enough to handle these situations again. In the meantime, the best support is validation of feelings, hugs, prayers, good vibes, love, and understanding.
Amy Peterson lives in central Minnesota with her wonderful husband, Brad. Their beloved son, Elijah David, was stillborn at 22 weeks on June 22, 2016. They currently share their home with Brad’s service dog, Empire, another sweet dog named Baylee and a spunky cat named Peanut. In her free time she enjoys writing, reading, music, photography, being out in nature, cooking, and spending time with family and friends.
Amy is finding purpose in working for the pregnancy loss community through volunteering and charity work. This journey has led her to meet some of the most compassionate and amazing people. She is passionate about giving a voice to the issues surrounding miscarriage, stillbirth, and neonatal death. Her biggest focus now is to honor the life and memory of her son.