The Value of Reminiscing

By Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph.D.

I missed Grandmother after she died; she had been such a spirited presence in our family. Then one day I noticed something: I had started buying stationery and cards that had beautiful flowers on them. “Ah,” I said to myself. “That’s Grandmother!” Grandmother always had flowers in her yard, and these flowers were always a topic of conversation when you were with her. I would say that she and flowers were so connected in our family that you couldn’t say one without thinking of the other. I had also begun to write to my family who live in different parts of the country, every week instead of my usual once or twice a month. Grandmother wrote every week, no matter what, and chided the rest of us when we were with her for not “keeping up the family tradition,” as she put it. “Family is important,” she would say. “You must write to your family.” (Excerpt from Seven Choices by Elizabeth Harper Neeld)

Sometimes people will say to us when we are grieving, “You must not keep thinking about the past. The past is gone. You have got to focus now on the future.” As well meaning as this advice might be, the advice can be wrong. For reminiscing — recalling events, conversations, occurrences from the past — is one of the important ways that we mourn. In fact, the word mourning in Sanskrit means “to remember.”

What is the value of reminiscing?

When you reminisce, these memories remind you of the person who were before the loss and can unite that person with the person you are now. In memory we can recognize and recall a self we were earlier in our life. And perhaps some of the qualities of who you were in the past can be very useful to who you are now.

Think about a mother who has lost a son. Perhaps when she reminisces she recalls how she helped her son with his science fair projects in middle school. Perhaps she remembers making papier-mâché to create a big globe; perhaps it was a string of Christmas lights she and her son stapled to a piece of poster board to create a system of signals needed in a project explaining how a power plant works. This reminiscing reminds this mother of a person she was in the past, and she might imagine bringing that person into the present. Perhaps she asks, “Could I volunteer in a school in the neighborhood as a way to honor the memory of my son?” Or she might decide to work as a volunteer at a children’s Discovery Museum nearby. By reminiscing she finds a role from her past that she can bring into the present as a way of honoring her son.

Professor Pietro Castelnuovo-Tedesco has studied reminiscence at Vanderbilt University. He reminds us that this form of thinking about the past is “one of the principal means by which a person continues to have a relationship with old parts of the self.” Through reminiscing, he says, we are able to maintain an “inventory” of the key images of ourselves from the past and are therefore able to keep “a thread of continuity among them.” (p. 138, Seven Choices)

Reminiscing about the past can be serviceable. “Serviceable?” someone might ask. “How can a past we can never return to be serviceable?” Because through reviewing our past accomplishments as well as our failures, we can better set goals for the future. Reminiscing works a bit like trial action. When we remember the values and ideals and dreams we held in the past, these memories can point the way as we think about the future.

Professor Castelneuovo-Tedesco tells us that reminiscing can even help us have more energy and combat depression. When we remember “this event happened, that person was good to me, those times were hard but I survived,” these memories can comfort and encourage us. Through this way of thinking we find that our minds are “peopled.” The figures of the past are not just memories or mere abstractions but are still present and available to use in certain ways: as sources of awareness, learning, and wisdom; as reminder of goals and ideals; as part of the context we have for making decisions in the present. We may come upon something we have known all our lives but now understand in a new way. In the process of remembering we create a new story. Some fresh pattern or meaning emerges. By memory and narration we rebuild our world. (Excerpt from Tough Transitions by Elizabeth Harper Neeld)

Related articles:
When Memories Are All We Have

• Learning to Live Healthily with Your Loss
You Know You're Getting Better When...
My Journal Is My Friend

Also by Elizabeth Harper Neeld:
What About All These Mysterious Things That Have Been Happening Since the Death?
The Little Things We Do Make Us Stronger
How Can We Hope When There Is No Hope?

Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld offers wisdom and practical insights born of personal experience to people rebuilding their lives after suffering grief and loss. As an internationally recognized and accomplished consultant, advisor, and author of more than twenty books - including Tough Transitions and Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World - she is committed to work that helps lift the human spirit.

Author's photo by Joey Bieber

Image Source: StockXchng/wolak


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Comment by River of Tears on February 16, 2011 at 5:27am

I know that I had wonderful times that were to be forever memories that I was so blessed to have with my Sister , but all that seems to replay is the last few days of her life that seem to be that tape that plays over and over . Where did all the great times we had together go , did they go with her too ?  Or is that my heart is so shattered It can not put together the pieces for me to replace that tape that wants to place everyday no matter what I am doing or where I am it is on.  Is it  guilt that is the on button to this tape ? Which I know if to take a scan of me know that is what they would see through and through .  Empty , fragments and  pieces of broken heart and guilt that lines what I am today .  We made time for each other , if not to be in the same state, then on the phone .  When young she would teach me what ever she knew or I asked her , ( which goodness believe me I did always wanting to be just like her ) .   I can not find the off switch , even if trying to sleep , if to dream at all it becomes more of a nightmare for all I know when waking she  will not be there .  How to find the memories of yesterdays the forever memories that we had together that we so loved . Did the really go with her to ?   There will never be anything to fill that space or fix this heart again .  At times I seem to tease myself by looking at pictures of her, only know that once put away that I will turn and she still will not be there .   This tape is playing even as write , for I wish I would have done or said all the many things that may have saved her .  If maybe to have yelled , when asked when the doctor asked , no I do not agree with this then maybe I would have been heard . ?  I am not sure even if they were listening for an answer , though then why did I not just grab her and run , If maybe then she would be beside me so not pass away so very young.  Why can I not find the switch the switch to turn the tape off or to turn back the clock . 


 Where did the memories go is not to leave with her .

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