You know when you discover a new author, and suddenly you come across books and mentions of her everywhere? Or when you get a new dog, and then you see that breed every time you walk down the street or play in the park? There’s actually a term for that – frequency illusion (or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, if you’re fancy) – but Jackie and I called it the “tragedy rule.”
After Jackie’s brain tumor was discovered in 2008, we started noticing brain tumor news and storylines everywhere we looked. Celebrities like Ted Kennedy were diagnosed with brain cancer, and characters on TV shows were discovering brain tumors. I remember Jackie saying, “If Izzie Stevens [from Grey’s Anatomy] ends up with a brain tumor, I will scream,” (she did, and she did).
It was the same for me after Madeline died. Suddenly, there was a dead kid plotline in every movie I watched. Jackie and I joked that when we were together, it was impossible to find a movie where someone didn’t have cancer or a dead child. We said we’d be better off zoning out to cartoons (and sometimes, we did). Of course, these sorts of plot twists weren’t actually occurring with more frequency – they were just suddenly more noticeable to us because of what we were going through.
This is one of the hardest things about the early stages of grieving, and it’s something no one tells you about. Even when you’re trying to go on living, you can’t escape the reminders. You can ask your friends to give you trigger warnings for TV shows (I did that for a while), or stop watching the news, but you can’t really shut them out. The tragedy rule will get you eventually.
For me, the tragedy rule has gotten easier to take as time’s gone on. There are still plenty of triggers and painful reminders, but it no longer feels like I’m being haunted by frequency illusion every time I turn on the TV. I don’t know if it’s because I’m desensitized to it now, or if, like everything else with grief, I’ve just learned how to compartmentalize it in order to function. If you’re in the early stages of grieving, know that (at least this) gets better.