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Particularly for Parents

Triggers That Call Their Names (abridged)

by Mitch Carmody,

Since the day my son, Kelly, died I have felt just a millisecond off from the rest of the world. At some subconscious level in my interaction with the world, I feel as if I am continually watching a movie with dubbed in dialogue, my mind often wandering to thoughts of my son. It has been seventeen years, and I am feeling joy again in my life but my thoughts always stray to Kelly.

To others I may appear normal, but underneath that ‘normal routine’ there are still receptors for hundreds of triggers that bombard my psyche forevermore; a part of the nature of my new universe. Unnoticeable to most, people have no idea how often my thoughts stray to my child. It’s no wonder I have short-term memory loss and depend on Post-it notes to survive. Right beneath the surface of my external expression, I have thoughts of my child hundreds of times a day. From the moment I wake up there will be triggers that bring to mind my child.

I have not kept my son’s name hidden away like some dark secret, nor have I built a shrine in his memory. I always keep him by my side. Even though we are in two different spheres of existence, we will experience a common journey together. I strive to keep Kelly in my conscious thought by the way I live my life. That is by conscious choice.

I believe each of our six senses has been reprogrammed and sensitized to recognize anything about our children’s lives and deaths. Immediately our thought synapses start firing bringing memories of our children into our active consciousness. In the early years of our grief journey these “triggers” are hair triggers, and they can initiate tears, anger and even gut-wrenching agony in seconds. The first few years can be raw survival, and nearly anything can be a trigger.

The sense of touch: Feeling the silky hem of a baby blanket, the rough leather of hunting boots, Terri-cloth “jammies,” the slimy skin of a frog, the warm forehead of a sick child, the cold wind of a winter storm, the hard feel of vinyl on a tightly clenched steering wheel, the scalding burn of too-hot cocoa, and endless more “touches” can evoke their names.

The sense of smell: The fragrance of a child coming in out of the cold, the smell of hard work emitting off an old denim jacket, the scent of hairspray, strong perfume or baby powder in the air, the aroma of their favorite meal cooking on someone else’s stove, the smell of fresh-cut Christmas tree, bananas, chocolate, bubblegum, car grease, burning popcorn, burning leaves, drifting sulfur from fireworks, fresh-caught fish, fragrant flowers, and zillions of other olfactory triggers can evoke their memories.

The sense of sight: The sight of any child or person their age that resembles them at any time in their lives, or even how they might appear if they had aged. The sight of a hospital, driving past a cemetery, sighting a hearse, a funeral procession, a flower spray, a sunset, a sunrise, a roadside marker, a billboard, a Volkswagen, a Harley, or a school bus, certain television shows or movies, a lunch box on the counter, a puppy, a tabby cat, a turkey, a penny on the sidewalk. Countless triggers are launched when our eyes are open.

The sense of hearing: Hearing a siren, a telephone ringing late at night, a baby’s cry, brakes screeching, the ding-ding of a heart monitor, the intercom announcement of a “Code Blue,” Pomp and Circumstance played in June, the Pachelbel Canon in D, Amazing Grace, My Country ‘tis of Thee; “Good night, sweetie,” “I love you, Pumpkin,” “Get home early,” “Is dinner ready?,” “Where are my shoes?” Hearing terms such as cancer, malignant, SIDS, AIDS, tumor, aneurism, blood work, test results, MRI, CT scan, spinal tap, prednisone, police report, overdose, suicide, or murder. Hearing, “There’s been a bad accident,” or “Good evening, it’s the six-o-clock news, or Christmas carols at the mall, or something whistling down the hall. Every word, every sound can be another trigger.

The sense of taste: A Dairy Queen Blizzard, the taste of tears, warm Kool-Aid, soggy Cheerios, the taste of fear, hamburgers, lasagna, grilled cheese sandwiches dipped in tomato soup, Spaghettios, movie-theater popcorn, Chicken McNuggets, or cherry Jell-O. Every taste a potential to trigger memories of absent children.

The sixth sense of psychic sense: We may have vivid dreams of our children where we hear, feel or smell their presence and even taste their tears. We can call them dreams, visions, hallucinations, visitations, psychic connections, messenger-connecting experiences, or angel hugs, but for us, they are valid experiences. Whenever I hear porch chimes and feel the breeze caress my warm face on an unusually calm and hot summer day, or hear on the radio Neil Diamond singing Turn on your Heartlight, my soul hears his name. If you see the dragonfly land on your shoulder, the butterfly on your hand, or smell her perfume in the car, or his cologne on the breeze, your soul can hear their names. Each time we feel and experience these brief reminders of our children, we relish the visit and thank God for the gift.

Unless physical limitations prevent it, we shall all experience the triggers of the five senses, and our children will always be in our thoughts without our real control. Not everyone will have a profound experience of the sixth sense but it is not unusual. Sometime the signs are just not recognized, or they are trivialized, hidden or ignored. But I believe that our children do reach out to us – not out of fear or loneliness, but out of compassion for our aching hearts. They comfort us when we need it the most.

We have been taught by our society to be afraid of things we cannot explain. Society has mystified and carnivalized experiences of the supernatural into a Hollywood experiences to both entertain and frighten, but every major religion of the world is filled with experiences of the supernatural.

A connection to our loved one who has died is real, and how it happens can be varied as we are. Manifestations of our children can be discernable to one or all of our senses because of our profound love. Thoughts of our children who have died will bombard our brains twenty-four/seven for the rest of our lives. Is that really a bad thing?

As we move through the years in our bereavement process, we find there are no pat answers in processing grief, especially in child loss. The journey is as individual as we are and, while we do not get over it, we learn to live with it. I accept that, as well as accepting every trigger, no matter how painful, that keeps me closer to my son.

We cannot run from our thoughts, but we can learn to live with them, even encourage them, and that’s fine with me. I will just buy lots of Post-it notes and the world will just have to get used to me being just a millisecond off….

Reprinted with permission from Grief Digest, Centering Corporation, Omaha, Nebraska, 402-553-1200,

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