Finding the Sweetness in Sorrow

Three Ways to Balance "Grief and Joy Triggers"

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Sherry Cormier, PhD

We’ve all experienced some heartbreak such as the loss of a meaningful job, a beloved person, a beautiful house, or a dear pet. Even small losses can make us sad – an unexpected change in our routine or a friendly neighbor’s move. Sadness erupts when something predictable and familiar ends. We felt collective grief watching the flames destroy part of the magnificent Notre Dame cathedral just as we felt communal relief when the altar and singular rose windows were spared.

Grief Triggers

In the midst of grief, it’s common to have our equilibrium suddenly disrupted by a sight, smell, or sound that reminds of the loss. My friend Maria is jolted about the loss of her mother every time she smells a lilac, her mom’s favorite scent. Kirsten sheds tears when she sees a baby, stirring up memories of the four miscarriages she’s had in the last eight years. We call these sudden jolts “Grief Triggers.” They are prompts that arise with anniversaries of loss events or when we remember something or someone we’ve lost. While many grief triggers feel like intruders, some can be welcome friends as we recall the loveliness of what or whom we’ve lost. In sorrow, there’s also sweetness.

Joy Triggers

Arianna Huffington wrote about “Joy Triggers” — those expected and unanticipated moments of joy, wonder, awe, and pleasure (Arianna’s Weekly Thoughts Newsletter, April 14, 2019). I will confess — while some of my joy triggers may be like yours — a walk on a beach, a visit to the park, a yummy piece of dark chocolate, I have more secret ones like my House Hunters “fix” and my obsession with houses for sale all over the world (Maybe I was a realtor in a former life!). In healing from loss and disappointments, we need to balance our moments of pain with times of pleasure. Easier said than done, yet here are three strategies to do just that.

Identify Gifts from Losses

One of the most powerful exercises I do in healing from loss groups is to ask participants to list any potential or actual gifts associated with the loss. After a few minutes of bewildered silence, folks write feverishly. Several widows and widowers have discovered a newfound sense of freedom – freedom from caregiving, freedom from consulting with anyone, freedom to do what one wants. It’s a strange concept I know – yet as a grief survivor I’ve learned there are often gains in losses, as well as new beginnings after difficult endings My friend Julio who lost his dream job found another position that was more exciting and lucrative than the former one. It takes some time to realize, as May Sarton wrote, that loss and disappointment are potentially “lavish with riches.”

Discover Units of Fun

My psychologist colleague William Fremouw developed a concept he calls “Units of Fun” (personal communication). In his words, a unit of fun or UF is something we think about, feel, and/or do that’s delightful. We share a joke with a co-worker, we visit the spring cherry blossoms or take a hike in the woods, we think about a close friend who lives miles away, or we go to an awesome concert. At the very least, we need one unit of fun a day, and the more units of fun we have, the more joyful our lives become. Even in the midst of heartbreaking circumstances, a hug, a loving thought, or a beautiful sight or song can enliven us. Both “joy triggers” and “units of fun” release a neurochemical called dopamine which is associated with pleasure and counteracts depressive feelings.

Find Ways to Lift the Spirits of Others

The week after my beloved husband passed, I went to my favorite (and comforting) Asian restaurant and found this fortune in my cookie: “The best exercise for the heart is to reach down and help someone.” Now, a decade later, it’s still posted on my refrigerator. It’s sage advice – whenever we do anything to help someone else, we feel better. Rachel Naomi Remen, physician and author has said: “Life is full of losses and disappointments and the art of living is to make of them something that can nourish others.” (On Being with Krista Tippett, Aug. 11, 2005). There’s science to this prescription too. Just as joy triggers and units of fun produce dopamine, helping others and being connected to people release oxytocin, another “feel good” hormone. Generosity and kindness are antidotes to sadness. Joy and grief triggers are not mutually exclusive, just as sorrow and sweetness co-exist too. In the words of Mary Oliver, “We shake with joy, we shake with grief. What a time they have, these two housed as they are in the same body.” (2009, Evidence: Poems, Beacon Press).

Sherry Cormier, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and a certified bereavement trauma specialist. She is a former faculty member at the University of Tennessee and West Virginia University and the author of Counseling Strategies and Interventions for Professional Helpers, and the senior author of Interviewing and Change Strategies for Helpers. Her newest book is: Sweet Sorrow: Finding Enduring Wholeness after Loss and Grief. Learn more about Sherry at:

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