To trigger or not to trigger…

A warning to anyone reading: some things in this entry may be considered graphic, as I’m about to discuss things in media that have and haven’t been a trigger for me due to Ross’s death. If your sensitivity is different than mine, or you’re also personally close to the situation, it might be hard to read.

I called my dad last night because he was home alone for the weekend, and I wanted to check up on him. He admitted he was doing alright but nights are hard, like usual. We talked about lots of things, including Game of Thrones since he just finished book four, but there was a pause in conversation where I found myself blurting out a question I’d been wanting to ask since seeing last week’s Castle episode: Was it hard for you to watch? Because Castle’s daughter was abducted and while I love that show, I spent the majority of the episode sitting there and imagining my parents watching it – wondering if it it hurt to see someone act the part of the concerned parent, and knowing that the fictional child will be okay, when Ross wasn’t.

I had a lot of feelings like that immediately in the months after the fire. It was like a raw, open wound and anything having to do with anything close to it felt like someone poking at it. They didn’t cause me to suddenly break down so much as just ache or tear up until I could move on. Games were similar. So many games have to do with death, or avoiding death, it was hard to get back to it at first. In the first couple weeks I couldn’t handle touching any of it, though more because it reminded me of what Ross and I did together  than any triggery content involved, but once I started getting back into things, there would be moments that would just make feel a bit sick to my stomach.

It wasn’t long before I got over that though, and found that I was able to separate the two in my mind. I play a fire mage in WoW, always have, and I remember sitting there and staring at it for a minute when I reactivated my account. I acknowledged that it was strange. I acknowledged that I will never be able to hear “fire” the same way again…. and then I took a breath, started questing, and proceeded to shoot fireballs at my enemies. I think my brain, out of sheer survival instinct and desperation to return to normalcy, compartmentalized it for me. It wasn’t long before I didn’t think about it anymore. Then a friend asked me if I was okay playing a fire mage and I blinked and had to go… oh… yeah. Actually it’s okay. Then I wondered if I was supposed to be okay and that maybe this was insensitive, and maybe I should feel worse.

WoW was cartoony enough that it was a quick transition. Other games though… it took me awhile before I could touch Borderlands again. You have guns in that game that set people on fire – and not just in the fireball fantasy cartoon way – it’s not gorey, but you do hear them scream. Was I okay with that? It’s strange because it was in the back of my mind when it happened – I’d acknowledge it, but I didn’t get upset. When I thought about it I realised that it would probably be completely different if flames were the reason he’d been killed. If his body had been worse off when I saw it at the hospital that day, if I’d known he suffered…. it would be different. But as it was, I knew it was the monoxide, and the worst looking part of him was the way his hair had all been burned off and his face was covered in soot. The rest of him looked like a bad sunburn and that was it. We probably have his clothes to thank for that, I’m not sure…. but it meant that people literally on fire in the games did little more than make me swallow and take a breath and think about it for a moment before being able to continue enjoying myself.

Meanwhile, things like a news report on tv about a man learning to walk again after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning due to a typical car-in-the-garage scenario make me cry, because suddenly I’m thinking about what would have happened if Ross had made it, but still suffered the brain damage he had, and what that would mean and would that have been better or worse I can’t decide and then my whole day is spent as raw and fragile as I was in that first week. And I won’t go near any show about firefighters. And once we saw a news report about another house fire somewhere, but everyone got out, and before I could stop myself I had blurted, very bitterly, “Of course, no one died.” My dad quietly added “Thank god” and immediately I felt awful.

But with games… it’s so strange what makes me uncomfortable and what doesn’t. I can play violent games. I can play games and laugh about my friends and I ‘dying’ and have fun trying to kill these fictional cartoon people, or shout “KILL EM DEAD”, etc. I’ll pause when it comes to suddenly needing to go “Burn 10 corpses on the battlefield” and mutter a slightly bitter “Thanks for that, WoW” because I think of Ross and cremation, but then I do it and move on. And then suddenly, I boot up a game like The Sims – a fairly innocent, non-violent game, and I panic because what it one of my idiot Sims sets the house on fire when cooking and oh my god I don’t think I can handle that.

Or I remember how when I got the very first Sims game I immediately made my family: Mom, Dad, Ross and I. I haven’t done that in awhile, but I always make me and my friends. Always. And suddenly I thought, oh fuck. I’ll never be able to make Ross again. Not just because he could die from something as asinine as not bathing before his mood bar hits zero and then I’d probably hyperventilate, but because I don’t think I could watch his Sim get a job and make money or get married when he’s not able to do any of those things anymore. The idea of that bothers me way more than any sort of fire-induced violence I’ve come across. It bothers me enough that when I name all my little crew members on Faster Than Light, I can’t name one Ross like I name all of them after me and my friends (like you would on Oregon Trail) because there’s the possibility he won’t come back from an away mission.

I guess its just been… sort of interesting, sort of depressing, and most of all a bit baffling trying to examine what will trigger discomfort or reopen the wound again. I try and predict it and then something comes out of nowhere that I wouldn’t expect to do it way more than anything that I feel like should make me uncomfortable.

I relate everything I do or see to Ross these days, but I also feel like if I let everything get to me that people think ‘should’ than I’ll have changed. I won’t be able to enjoy the things I used to. And I’ve never been more thankful for Ross’s ability to have a morbid or slightly darker sense of humor – if he would have laughed at it, then I seem to be able to still.

I guess it’s just taken time to accept is that there’s no real ‘should’ when it comes to these things. I’ve known that logically the whole time, but there’s a difference between knowing that everyone’s triggers and everyone’s should and shouldn’ts are individual and unique and okay – and actually accepting that fact and being able to take some comfort in it.

Grief’s weird.

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  1. I think it’s absolutely normal to relate everything you experience to Ross. And I also think it’s normal that fantasy violence bothers you less than something like Sims. I watched every sort of horror movie ending in a fire in the months after ours, but then I saw a short clip advertising the United Way interviewing a lady who had barely gotten out of her house and I had to surprise a panic attack (it was at work).

    I think what you’re doing – trial and error, testing your boundaries – is just fine. You’re absolutely right. There is no “should” in grieving.

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