Updated: Jul 3, 2021
I first learned the term Trigger Warning on social media. I'm sure I had heard it before but I came to understand the meaning in a closed Facebook group. After my husband died, I felt isolated. I needed to find my people. I wanted to connect with others who had walked in my shoes and could relate to where I was. I had supportive and loving friends but it was obvious that nobody knew what to say to me. I felt awkward talking on and on about the details of my loss and all of my complicated emotions while they listened in silence. They were patient and encouraging but I still felt all alone. I often left conversations fearing that I said too much. That I made everyone uncomfortable. That I didn't belong.
I decided to look online for support groups since I hated the thought of sitting in a circle taking turns sharing tragic stories. There also weren't many meetings offered in my area unless I wanted to drive across the island one night each month with no childcare. My search unearthed an overwhelming number of grieving people in many different forums. There were grief groups for those who have lost a parent. There were groups for those who have lost someone to cancer. There were groups for widows, widowers, siblings and those who have lost a child. Then I discovered a group that was specific to suicide loss. It was comforting and eye opening and even a little, well, triggering.
A Trigger Warning, by definition, is a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material. In this group, it was common courtesy to preface each post that could possibly be upsetting with a TW. If there was any mention of the details of someone's death or any information that may cause the reader to have flashbacks, memories or strong emotions, the post should include this label. It seemed that every post within this group had a warning, as that was the nature of the conversation. Even the word trigger started to become an issue as that in itself would trigger some people depending on the circumstance of their loved one's death. And because everyone has different views, feelings and opinions, so many topics and details could be disturbing to different people.
I remember during that time being offended by anything and everything. I felt raw and overly sensitive. I was insulted by nonchalant comments like shoot me or I would kill myself if that happened. I was disgusted by the gesture of someone pointing their fingers to their head like a gun when they were bored. I was horrified by Halloween decorations like skeletons and ghosts and other figures hanging by their necks. I was, and still am, surprised and disappointed by family movies like Toy Story, The Goonies, Dr. Doolittle and The Incredibles that include scenes that depict suicide or casually mention the word. And don't get me started on all the Disney movies with a parent that died. I used to cringe at the mention of death, dying, suicide and any other form of loss. And then one day I came across a meme that stopped me in my tracks.
Your triggers are your problem
My heart sank. I was furious. I wanted to find the person who wrote those words and scratch their eyes out. How could they be so insensitive? Don't they know what we've been through? How could anyone be so cruel? But deep down inside I knew it was true. And it made me realize something. Up until that point I had been expecting people to treat me differently. I wanted them to walk on eggshells around me. I felt they should choose their words carefully and think of my feelings first. I needed to be shielded and coddled and protected from all the dangers around me.
I thought I should be an exception to certain rules. I played the widow card whenever I could as a free pass out of obligations, celebrations and anything else I didn't want to do. I still catch myself wanting special treatment in certain circumstances because my husband died. When it's too much. When I can't handle it. When it's all too hard. But that meme showed me that I can't control anyone but myself. Triggers are never going to stop showing up. So I get to decide who I want to be when they do. Do I want to be angry and defensive? Do I want to react and respond? Do I want to be curious about my thoughts and feelings and manage my mind? I have a choice.
My son is particularly upset by seeing dads playing with their kids in the pool. This was his favorite thing to do with his own dad before he passed away. He would have a blast splashing around, being thrown high up in the air, laughing. These are his most vivid memories. We have had many discussions about this. We have acknowledged that there is always the potential to see dads playing with their kids, especially at the pool. We know that by going there we are taking the risk of seeing that. I have explained to him that we can't avoid people forever. But we have an agreement. If we ever go to the pool and he is triggered by what he sees, we can choose to leave. No questions asked. We don't have to be mad at these people or treat them like they've done something wrong. We can just decide we don't want to be there anymore.
I realize now that I can't expect everyone to tiptoe around me. Not everyone I encounter knows what I have been through. And even if they did, I can't expect them to understand. It doesn't mean I don't have thoughts and feelings about their crass behavior or insensitive remarks. But I have a new perspective now. I just assume that everyone I come in contact with is experiencing, or has endured, some type of hardship. I try to be kind. I try to show patience and compassion. Even without loss and tragedy, life is hard. We all have bad days, hard times, rough patches, funks and slumps. We've all been knocked down, disappointed, set back, discouraged, frustrated and stuck at one time or another. It isn't easy. It's a fucking struggle. Even good days are exhausting and a lot of hard work. It's not a competition. We don't need to one-up each other. We are all in this together. We are doing the best we can even if our best is kind of shitty sometimes.