What to Do When You Are Blindsided by a STUG

Q. Five years ago, my father passed away after suffering from dementia for years. The entire family was there to say goodbye to him, and we felt like we had closure. He planned well, so everything was taken care of and he took the time to leave us notes before his dementia got bad and special items that reminded him of things we did together. I have his picture on my mantel and smile every time I think about him.

Recently, I had a strange experience. It felt like a sudden tsunami of grief for my father. It was intense and completely unexpected, especially after five years. I purposely never experienced intense sadness and grief for him, because he was a fun-loving person who always wanted to see his family happy, so I knew he wouldn’t have wanted that. It’s Mental Health Awareness Month this month, so I thought I would ask you this question is what happened normal? Do you have any idea what it could be about, and what I can do about it? Thanks!

A. Every May, Mental Health Awareness Month is a national movement to raise awareness about mental health. For 2021’s Mental Health Awareness Month, the theme is “You Are Not Alone.” This theme focuses on the healing value of connecting in safe ways, prioritizing mental health, and acknowledging that “it’s okay to not be okay.”

This month and always, anyone affected by mental illness or mental health issues can get the appropriate support and help they need to live healthy, fulfilling lives — so no one should be alone in their struggle.

What Is a STUG?

Many of us have lost somebody we love very much, whether it be a parent, grandparent, sibling, child, significant other, or close friend. After going through the grieving process, many of us feel like we’ve moved forward. Yet, sometimes moments may surface that bring you back to a place of hurt, sadness, and pain. During these moments, you may suddenly feel a wave or an intense surge of emotions. These triggers can come out of nowhere and can derail you, when you least expect it.

A STUG, or a Sudden Temporary Upsurge of Grief, is a term defined by grief expert Dr. Therese Rando in the early 1990s. It is characterized by an intense, unexpected surge of emotion that arrives on occasion to those who have experienced the loss of a loved one, sometimes even long after the person’s death.

When Do STUGs Normally Occur?

STUGs can come up on days we expect, including special moments such as birthdays, anniversaries, and family celebrations. The toughest part, however, is when they arrive at moments you least expect them. For instance, you may be at the grocery store, out with friends, or even just at work.

Certain things can trigger STUGs. Innocuous memories, moments in time, or even sensory experiences from a taste, smell, or even a sound can bring about a crushing wave of emotion. These STUGs can ambush you and cause an upsurge of grief emotions at any time.

STUGs sometimes happen many years after you have experienced a loss, even when you think you’re fine and have moved on. A substantial time may have passed since your loss, and while the overall grief may have subsided, moments brought on by a STUG can be both alarming and frightening. The important thing to remember is that these are very common, very normal, and all part of the overall grieving process.

In a recent Next Avenue article, author and psychologist Jackson Rainer describes his recent STUG. Walking through a Walmart, he passed a family who was squabbling with each other — all of whom were tense and irritated. He thought to himself, as many of us do in similar situations, how glad he was that he was past this stage in his life. Then, out of nowhere, it hit him. He describes it as follows: “a wall of abject pain slammed into me, full of loss, longing, loneliness, and heartache.”

Rainer felt attacked. He could neither think nor talk. In terror and horror, he abandoned his shopping cart, found his car in the lot, and fell into it, all while struggling to catch his breath. After about 20 minutes (which seemed like 20 years to him), the sensation receded, leaving him agitated by the residuals of the intense pain he felt in his mind, body, and spirit. He described the feeling as a “blindside wipeout of grief.”

As a psychologist with many years of clinical practice, Rainer has helped others through similar experiences. Because of his professional life, he didn’t expect it to happen to him. His wife, Karen, had died four years prior to this incident.  

How to Protect Yourself from STUGs

Everyone’s grieving process is different. Grief is a complex, ever-evolving emotion and while we may manage our emotions as time goes on, moments that bring on a STUG are absolutely normal. For those of you who experience them, STUGs can catch you off guard, but there are ways to manage and protect yourself for when STUGs come around:

Identify your experience. Attempt to label and identify your experience for what it is. Naming it and understanding that you are in fact experiencing a STUG can help you feel more in control.
Keep in mind that this is only a temporary experience. It will pass, and keeping that in mind will help you feel more in charge and help the emotion subside.
Ride out the STUG when it happens. Research shows that riding out a STUG is the most effective strategy to getting through it. Providing yourself with a safe, private place to collect yourself is paramount. Attempt to keep your breathing steady, breathe deeply, and allow the feelings to come. Leaning into it and allowing yourself to feel the pain until it passes is important.
Take time to process your feelings and understand why you are feeling this way. Respond kindly to yourself, and be mindful of why you are experiencing these moments. This will help you to be better prepared to handle them in the future.
Understand what is happening to you and how to adjust. Similar to a panic or anxiety attack, STUGs can put your body on hyper-alert. This means that your body may be rushing with endorphins, and you may be feeling a “fight-or-flight” response to the stimulus. With this in mind, once the STUG passes, your body may need time to adjust, and return to normal. Be kind to yourself and make sure you take the time and care you need during this time. Sleep, rest, and relaxation are great things to do following a STUG.


If You Are Experiencing Grief That Won’t Subside

Grief is normal and natural after the loss of a loved one. The only ‘cure’ for grief is grieving. It can’t be ignored, repressed, or dismissed without lasting consequences.

If you have a loved one who passed away, please remember that going on with your life is not forgetting about the person who you loved. It is okay to laugh and be happy again. Moving on is not a betrayal. You will always carry your loved one in your heart no matter how much your life changes.

People around you may not know what to say or how to help. Death makes people uncomfortable. If friends or family offer to help, allow them to help in any way possible. These offers of help are most frequent right after the death, but you may need support for a longer time. Don’t be afraid to ask a friend for help. Some people like to surround themselves with support and others need space and time alone. Do what feels right for you.

If you are ever at the point where you feel like you can’t cope, or no one understands you or listens to you, counseling by a trained professional can be very helpful. Even a few sessions can help you get back on track. Don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed that you are seeking help.

There are programs, tools, and resources to help you cope with your loss whether if it was recent or some time ago, as follows:

GriefNet is an Internet community of persons dealing with grief, death, and loss that includes 37 email support groups and two websites. Their integrated approach to online grief support provides help to people working through loss and grief issues of all kinds.
The Grief Recovery Institute offers certification, outreach, and community education programs designed to help grievers deal with their loss by offering practical tools to overcome loss and regain happiness.
WidowNet is an information and self-help resource for, and by, widows and widowers. Topics covered include grief, bereavement, recovery, and other information helpful to people of all ages, religious backgrounds, and sexual orientations who have suffered the death of a spouse or life partner.
For bereavement support groups in our area, please see the Senior Navigator in Virginia, InfoMontgomery in Maryland, and Griefshare in DC.
If you have a loved one who passed away and you are grieving, please see Resources That May Help After the Death of a Loved One on the Farr Law Firm website.


Be Prepared for the Inevitable

Unfortunately, we will all die, and it will undoubtedly be a sad and stressful time for the loved ones we leave behind. So why not make it as easy on them as you can? Once you have taken the step of speaking with your loved ones about your wishes, it is important for you to sign appropriate Estate Planning documents, such as a Last Will and Testament, a Revocable Living Trust to protect your assets from probate, or a Living Trust Plus® to protect your assets from probate, plus lawsuits, plus long-term care expenses. Also important are Incapacity Planning documents, including a General Power of Attorney and an Advance Medical Directive, to make your wishes known and to appoint someone to make legal, financial, and medical decisions for you if you become incapacitated prior to your death. Call us to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Fairfax Estate Planning: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Estate Planning: 540-479-1435
Rockville Estate Planning: 301-519-8041
DC Estate Planning: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.