I am familiar with loss. Inhabiting a dark corner of my mind from the time I was an 11-year-old was a sense that my life, like my mother’s, would be over at age 40-something and I found myself calculating the years until I would reach the age of my mother’s death. Logically, and perhaps self-assuredly, I assumed that my awareness of the potential unconscious impact of age-matching anniversaries allowed me to escape the emotional struggles associated with it. However, conscious knowledge does not eliminate memories that script our present emotional responses and influence how we govern our lives.
My father, brokenhearted from my mother’s passing, did not show me how to deal with death, let alone how to have a happy or long life after such a loss. Professing his wish to be in heaven with my mother, my father died from heart disease 10 years later, surrendering to a religiously acceptable form of suicide by declining vital surgery. I was then a young adult without living parents, with only memories to keep them present within me. Many decades later, as I was completing a manuscript for a book about grief, my husband of 44 years suddenly died.
My own journey underscores my conviction that the people we have lost maintain a presence within the memories that are activated throughout our lives, and that these memories can script who we become. Yet memories also contain painful reminders of irretrievable joy. Without positive emotional memories and imagery to arouse it, grief is absent. Remembering is what makes us grieve.
Our unique memory system enables us to gather, classify, preserve, and call up a great variety of information from many different sources. Consciously or unconsciously, our memories can reproduce past experiences and simulate present and future possibilities. As such, memory is an essential tool we use for adapting to various circumstances. In situations involving loss, however, new information does not align with our existing memories: Although recent memories inform us of the loved one’s absence, more distant memories remind us of their presence. How we reconcile this clashing information influences our responses to loss.
We may want to do something to get rid of our grief, but grief is not the true problem. Our suffering results from memories of a loved one that trigger distress or anguish. The experience of grief involves a comparison of the present with the contents of our memories. Recalling enjoyable moments with a departed person—a mother’s smile, a father’s hug, or a child’s laughter—may remind us of what we miss. Memories activated by situations, places, or circumstances—the magic of a holiday, a favorite restaurant, or a trip to the beach— may draw attention to the deceased and the positive emotions we recall sharing with them. A mere gist of a memory, activated by an image, a smell, or a song, can make us aware of feelings and sensations associated with a lost loved one, even without our conscious awareness of why we are experiencing those feelings or sensations at a given moment. Memories of enjoyable moments we once shared with someone who has died are not something we can, or would want to, forget. Given our lifelong ability to remember, grief is not something we just process and get over.
In countless ways, and to varying degrees, images based on our memories keep us close to loved ones who have died. Many attempts to make sense of grief, whether books, blogs, or self-help seminars, have ignored the role of human memory. Consider the concept of a continuing bond with the deceased. If we share a life with someone, we accrue memories of the past, and we store dreams and expectations. We find it difficult to reconcile their death with what we had envisioned. In essence, the continuing bond fits into a mental framework or schema that integrates our memories of someone while they were living with our recent memories of their absence and our current experience of life without them. Thus, keeping deceased loved ones with us, in whatever way we may do so, resolves the painful discrepancy between current reality and past memories.
Death is a conspicuous loss. This post focuses on the death of a loved one; however, people carry many kinds of grief-related memories. Grief also attends the loss of an intact family because of divorce, or the mysterious disappearance of a pet, or a parent’s descent into dementia, parents whose children sustain brain damage in an accident, or a sibling who develops a serious mental illness. Grief may attend the loss of a lover who is still living. Sometimes the death of a perpetrator of trauma or violence triggers grief in a victim. Some people experience collective grief, such as members of a community whose homes have been destroyed by a wildfire, or the doctors and nurses who coped with the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes we believe that we are not entitled to grieve less conspicuous losses, or we think that others will judge our grief as illegitimate. In any case, we grieve because we remember when things were different.
In future posts, I will expand on the concept of continuing bonds, discuss how grief is often personally and silently held, and explain the fascinating ways in which our multiple systems and sub-systems of memory interface with loss to produce grief.
(This post is excerpted in part from my forthcoming book, Grief Isn’t Something to Get Over, APA Books, May 2022)