Changing Triggers After the Death of a Loved One

by | Health, Productivity


Cue. Routine. Reward.

It's hard to know just how much someone becomes a part of your life until you have to change your cues and routines, and there isn't a reward waiting for you.

September 10, 2014, my Grandpa, George Bertram, aka Wally, died. We were very close and he was a huge supporter of anything I did, and I mean anything. He didn't understand my business, but he never failed to give me advice, solicited or not 🙂 I found out after driving home from presenting at the North Carolina Business Travel Association in Charlotte. It was a big day for me and something I had been waiting for. I was excited the 2.5-hour drive home because I couldn't wait to tell him the connections I made.

Cue: Business event, connection or task.

Routine: Save up the ‘good stuff' every week for my call with Grandpa to tell him. Listen to his advice and how I'm going to be the CEO of a major company someday.

Reward: Hearing him laugh and say “I don't know what you do, but I know you're the best at it.”

Now? I still find myself a couple of months later making a mental note to tell Grandpa when something big happens. I'm collaborating with a company that I follow and admire, and he would have laughed his butt off to know about it. I have his walking cane, and I hold it and talk about my week. I don't believe he hears me. I know it's just for me. But it's my substitute until I'm ready to give up my routine. An interim solution to heal my heart. The problem is there is no longer a reward.

Fast forward to Thanksgiving. Every Thanksgiving morning for at least 12 years I've made my Grandpa and Grandma a calendar with photos of our family. When they had to start living apart, I made two of them. 

Cue: Thanksgiving morning.

Routine: Make a calendar.

Reward: Their smiles at Christmas when they opened it.

Now? I did it Thanksgiving Eve by myself with The Wire playing in the background. My heart wasn't in it. I know Grandma will still love it, but it took a lot out of me, and I had to have Stringer Bell distracting me to be able to get through it.


On November 23, 2014, our cat Pele died. It was very unexpected, and just the previous night we hosted a charity event, and he was very social. I woke up about an hour later than usual and found him screaming and writhing in pain. It is an image and sound I can't unsee or unhear. From the time we saw him until the time we had to let him go at the vet, was about an hour. We had not prepared for this in any way. My husband held him, and I petted his little head and told him how much he meant to us.

Pele was my first pet. We had him for twelve years. I grew up on a farm with animals and didn't even know that people brushed animals or gave them treats. Our animals served a purpose – barn cats to eat mice, dogs to chase critters from cows, etc. Every one of our dogs got hit by cars. I guess it's hard to teach a dog he can roam around on 80 acres but not go to the road….or at least that's what I thought growing up. Pele was the animal that taught me what a pet was. I didn't even want him but agreed because we had mice. And then I fell in love.

I used to joke and say that Kevin, his Pawpy, was his love. He used to sit on Kevin's lap every time he was in the living room. In twelve years he sat on mine nine times. His Meowmy (me!) was his servant and caretaker. I scooped litter, fed him, gave him medicine and brushed him.

I knew we had routines because I've always worked from home, but didn't realize how much they were habit until I no longer had them.

Cue: Meditate on the floor in my office. Pele hears the sound of the rain background on my app.

Routine: Runs his little fat butt down the stairs and waits patiently for me to finish.

Reward: He gets brushed.

Now? The first time I meditated I lost it. I sat there and held that damn brush for at least 15 minutes. I don't know what I was waiting for, but I can't use that app anymore. At least for now.


Cue: Pele rocks the litterbox.

Routine: I go in to scoop and do 5-15 pull-ups or chin-ups.

Reward: Strength. That little guy was a poo-ing machine.

Now? I spent Thanksgiving Eve and Day turning his closet into my new clothes closet. I needed to change the cue, so I didn't lose the routine. It is a healthy habit, and I don't want to give it up. It feels really good, and there isn't a sad memory when I go there (it was the litterbox closet after all) and now my cue is putting clothes away or getting dressed.

I'm not sure if this post is helpful to anyone but me. I certainly feel better writing it. If you have a healthy routine with someone that you lose, honor them by coming up with a new cue-routine-reward. It may not happen quickly. It won't feel the same. It could be hard to start. Even though the cues have changed, the routine is different, and I've lost the rewards, I know that my Grandpa would want my Grandma to have that calendar and Pele would be yelling at me to do one more chin-up.

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