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A trigger I did not expect

It’s amazing to me how hard it is to predict how I will react in a given situation, or how I will be coping on a particular day or at a certain moment. I thought it would get more predictable and manageable over time. Maybe enough time hasn’t passed to qualify as the “over time” amount, because I’m caught off guard more often than not. Or, maybe it will never follow a pattern I can anticipate. Maybe how it works will never be consistent enough to allow any comforting level of understanding.

In the last couple of years I’ve experienced a range of grief triggers, and have heard and read a lot about how others experience them. I can think of fairly typical and common ones, like particular days on the calendar, songs, photographs, smells, and holidays – I have triggers in all of these categories, and it’s safe to say that I expected them.

However, I did not expect to be triggered by stuff in a category I would call “happy things.”

A delicious dinner. An adorable moment with a dog. A flavorful beer. A restored late-1960s Mustang. A funny conversation. A warm and sunny day, like it was a couple of days ago when I started writing this.

To my surprise, I have found that all kinds of happy things can trigger me, and it happens randomly. I will experience something nice, and it makes me feel good, and then right on the heels of the positive emotion comes that overwhelming feeling that Frank should be here – he should be tasting the dinner, hearing the conversation, trying out the beer. The weather is nice and he should be here enjoying it.

There’s that “should” word again. The word that shines a blazingly bright light on the yawning gap between what I expected to be at this point in my life and what actually is.

Luckily, I’m not triggered every time something makes me happy. It seems completely random, but that makes it perhaps more unsettling, because I never know when it’s going to hit. I find it easier to handle something tough when I can reasonably guess when it’s going to happen – for example, when I was in chemotherapy, the regimented medication schedule and my predictable reactions to it led to my feeling far more in control than I had imagined possible. Monday Taxol, Tuesday and Wednesday hopped up on steroids, Thursday crash with flu-like aches and exhaustion, Friday crawling back from Thursday’s pit, Saturday and Sunday feeling pretty good, Monday back in for the next infusion. I could brace myself when I knew I would need to, and relax when I could guess things would ease up.

My grief, so far, follows no such pattern. It’s a new adventure every day, sometimes every hour.

I do think of how Frank can be everywhere now in a way, experiencing every happy thing that each of us on earth who loves him wants to share with him. I return to that thought often to see if I can find comfort in it. So far it’s kind of like checking the cup of dirt on the windowsill in the kitchen, the one your kid brings home from school with a seed planted in it. As much as you want the seed to grow, day after day it’s still just a cup of dirt. You have hope, though, that something you can't see yet is brewing down in there, something that will poke through and live and bring a smile to your face. So you keep checking. I keep checking, too.

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