I’m on high alert for triggers now. Things that will spark a flashback. It could be a song, a scene in a movie, or even the way someone looks. A trigger can be sneakily hidden in a Facebook post or magazine article, though these days most authors are sensitive and provide fair warning.
Ever since my sister died by suicide last fall, I’ve been careful to avoid anything that will stir up the pain, trauma, and panic that’s always sleeping inside me. Most of the time, I can avoid triggers because I know when to expect them.
I expect holidays to be triggering. Particularly Halloween, with its shivery air and crunchy leaves and swirls of costumes and colors and sugar. Previously one of my favorite holidays, but now forever marked with gut-wrenching pain and actual terror. Anniversaries too. Her birthday, the day she died - one year, two years, and onward.
But I don’t expect banal Thursdays to be triggering. I wake up on Thursday morning to the news of Chris Cornell’s death. The news is just breaking, nothing is really known. No triggers yet. I have to Google his name. It sounds familiar, but I can’t remember from where. A five second search reminds me that he’s the highly revered musician and lead singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave. That guy – damn.
The memories come rushing in. Those bands are part of the soundtrack to my youth: driving cars to nowhere just for that long-lost thrill of driving, bonfires and first burning sips of vodka, nights in my pale pink room with my Discman swirling, getting lost in sounds. Navigating that tangled, gritty space between child and adult. Playing those CDs for my little sister, trying to educate her in music, never anticipating her taste and knowledge would soon far surpass mine. My shallow understanding of the weight and talent behind Chris’s music, just loving it ‘cause it sounded good.
Memories, warm and bittersweet. But still no triggers. There’s a difference between an aching, longing pain, and the kind of pain that sucks your breath away and brings you to your knees. The first pain I’ve learned to dance with. The second pain - I still have to prepare for battle.
Later that Thursday, more news breaks. His death was suicide. Sudden, shocking, unexpected. He had just performed, and then he hung himself. Just like my little sister. She was 25. He was 52. And the triggers are pulled and their bullets are quick and devastating.
The waves are crashing on me, but I’m stronger now. After months of therapy and meditation and yoga and all sorts of healing practices (including time with a medium), the bullets don’t take me down. But they still hurt. I spend the rest of the day tending to the wounds. Drinking iced tea, practicing yoga, escaping in TV. When the panic starts to rise and I don’t know if I can hold it back any longer, I take a walk.
Down the streets of Harlem. Sunglasses on, earbuds in. Playing Chris’s music. Letting it fill me.
Black hole sun
Won't you come
And wash away the rain
I come back home, sweaty but calm. The bullets didn’t take me down this time. The waves of pain crashed over me but didn’t pull me under. I can swim better now. A small, dull ache pulses in my chest, but that’s always there. I’ve actually learned to love it a little bit. It reminds me that life is fragile and fleeting, beautiful and raw, but the universe is infinite.
I believe that when our bodies extinguish, our souls go on. Swirling in the music around us, maybe going on to experience other human lives, and eventually becoming part of that divine energy. What we put out during our lives here – music, poetry, art, love, humor – becomes part of that energy too. Part of God, part of the universe.
Chris’s music plays on. My sister’s music plays on. I just need to remember to close my eyes, take a breath, and listen.