Should “Grief Bursts” Create Fear?

When we have lost someone deeply loved, it’s hard to know what random event in our day might trigger a sudden flashback into grief.  Even years later!

Last weekend, my husband Jim cycled with me on a short portion of Spokane, Washington’s exquisite Centennial Trail.  I call it “husband-love” because he normally rides a fast, exhilarating 30-40 miles.

With me, he slows way down…think of sauntering on a bike!   We bring energy snacks, pause for water breaks, and only cycle about 7 miles.  But within minutes we begin savoring the beauty of the winding Spokane River, the scent of summer pine, and the abundance of wildflowers.

Suddenly, the sound of continuous rifle shots reverberate up the river floor, shattering our peace.

Turns out the Spokane Rifle Club’s outdoor range lies next to Riverside State Park.  They offer instruction and practice in a variety of firearms, including high power shooting, muzzle loaders, black powder cartridge rifles, even old buffalo guns.  Hearing these gunshots so nearby is unnerving.

This intrusion to peace seems similar to living with grief.  One’s days may be going along with some semblance of normalcy, when suddenly a memory might trigger a “grief burst.”  It can happen hearing a favorite song, attending a baby shower, seeing a child playing soccer, waking from a haunting dream– anything that unearths a memory.  Blindsided, their timing is unpredictable, fraught with intense emotion, sometimes causing uncontrollable tears.  Their intensity can create fear, wondering if we are sliding back to the earlier deep grieving that so pained our days?

“It’s inevitable that grief will be triggered again, sometimes years later, even while one is living an emotionally healthy life,” believes Jerry Sittser who lost his wife, young daughter, and mother from a drunk driver.  His book A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Grief eloquently portrays his faith journey as he raises three children, continues teaching, and counsels many others in grief.

He believes one of the great enemies of grief is giving ourselves a timetable since everyone’s pace in grief is different. Over 15 years later, when his fiancé mentioned that her friend had been the Sunday School teacher for his four-year-old Diana Jane, “I just burst into tears….a whole flood of memories emerged.”   He finds that such events are normal, when anger or pain might re-emerge temporarily.

“Grief is like an ocean beach,” reflected a woman pastor one afternoon over tea.  “Waves come steadily for a while, then suddenly a giant wave comes crashing in.”


“These ‘waves of desperation’ are not an over-reaction,” believes Dr. Lami Leary, a grief therapist.  She consults and writes for LifeNet Health in that counsels organ donor families.  She mentions that grief bursts are so common and expected that in the bereavement field they are referred to as STUG-Subsequent Temporary Upsurge of Grief.  Not only are they a healthy and understandable part of grief, she finds they offer a positive opportunity. These temporary moments allow us to visit the memory of one we love, feel this love, and turn this difficult time into a meaningful passage.


What triggers memories or grief bursts for you?  When they happened, what proved helpful or harmful for you?

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Pilgrimage (54 Posts)

Pilgrimage through Loss: Pathways to Strength and Renewal after the Death of a Child offers encouragement and information for other parents living in the long season of sorrow. Drawn from interviews from mothers and fathers on their grief journey, plus Linda Lawrence Hunt's memoir of their family's loss, it also includes recent research on grief, resilience, and creative healing.

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About Linda
For everyone, life sometimes brings shipwreck moments.

Ours happened when four friends woke us one beautiful May dawn to break the news that our 25-year-old married daughter Krista had died 7000 miles away while volunteering in Bolivia. Our hearts shattered, much like the shards of her bus that plunged over a mountain cliff.
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Desperate. Determined. Unwaveringly confident. In 1896, a Norwegian immigrant named Helga Estby dares to cross 3500 miles of the American continent to win a $10,000 wager. On Foot. BOLD SPIRIT: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk across Victorian America introduces readers to this fascinating journey of an audacious act of courage and love of a mother trying to save a family farm.

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Support for Parents

+ Alliance of Hope for Suicide Survivors On-line forum and website

+ American Childhood Cancer Organization (ACCO) (Formerly Candlelighters Childhood Cancer)

+ Compassionate Friends

+ First Candle: Support for Stillborn and SIDS deaths

+ Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (LOSS)

+ MISS Foundation (also in Spanish) On-line support groups : Infant & toddler death and advocacy

+Parents of Murdered Children

+ TAPS: Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors: 1-800-959 3277 for survivors of military deaths