Expected and unexpected grief triggers

Dear Mum,

I was just thinking back to this day last year when three of your girlfriends arrived at your house with morning tea, announcing that they hadn’t missed one of your birthdays yet. 

I took candid photos of you all laughing so hard that each of you had to pull a tissue from your sleeve or bra and hold it to your eyes. 

When they drove away, you stood on the deck waving.

And I saw that you were crying.

‘I wonder if I’ll ever see them again,’ you said.

You didn’t.

But they loved you so much, Mum, and I bet they miss you as much as we do. I’m glad you got to spend your last birthday with them.

And it’s only right now, as I’m writing this, that I don’t think I ever saw you cry at any other time during your illness.

Did you do that to protect me, Mum?

I did my best not to cry in front of you, too.

Until the morning you told me that you’d cleaned Dad’s good shoes ready for your funeral.

I’d read about the Ring Theory where the person experiencing the bad thing is in the middle ring, like the bullseye of a target. And the larger rings around that person represent, first, significant others, then true friends, casual friends and in the outermost ring, members of the larger community.

I knew that if I was talking to someone in a ring smaller than mine, in this case, yours, the goal was to provide comfort and support. If I wanted to unload about how crap the situation was, I had to turn to someone within my ring or in a larger one.

That was hard, Mum. You’ve always been in my ring. It was you I always cried to. And it was you I wanted to cry to.

But I knew that the situation was crap in every ring and you had enough going on in yours. How on earth could I ask you to comfort me?

I tried not to cry that morning, to hide my tears, but I was kneeling in front of your armchair with my hand on your knee, and you saw them.

‘Don’t cry,’ you said.

It breaks my heart again no to think of the emotions bound up in those tears and your comment. 

We were lucky, Mum, that the ring around yours, the significant others, was so crowded that we held each other standing. We still do that.


This is the first birthday without you. A grieving friend told me that he didn’t like acknowledging the firsts, as they focused on the death rather than the life of his loved one.

I agree. And I know you would too. 

You loved your life so much, Mum, that it almost feels a dishonour to place the focus today on your death. 

Instead I’ll celebrate your life and the 71 years you had to enjoy it, I’ll remember your smile when you were around us and all of the ways you showed us your love.

Happy birthday, Mum.



The ‘firsts’ of Mother’s Day and Mum’s birthday have been expected grief triggers for me, but they were compounded with an unexpected trigger too this week as I heard of others’ loss and grief.

When we’re around someone who’s grieving, we feel uncomfortable with our helplessness and powerlessness to change or fix their agony. We don’t know that to say. We’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Perhaps instead we say nothing at all. Reassuring a person feeling raw grief with a statement of ‘At least…’ may not provide the comfort we hoped.

Losses and grief are universal experiences. Grief is normal. It doesn’t have stages and there is no right or wrong.

Let’s put our own unease aside and let the grieving know that there is nothing to say; come towards them and meet them where they are. Let them be there.  


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