The Management of Grief
Comfort in Memories
Our culture has incorporated many ideas about the management of grief that may need to be reconsidered. Recently I’ve been reading The Other Side of Sadness by George Bonanno. One of the things that stood out to me was that finding comfort in the memories of our deceased loved ones can be very healing.
I had an intuitive gut-level, “Well, of course” reaction when I first read it. But then I realized that my brain was hesitating, asking if this isn't how people become stuck in grief. The management of grief, it has been thought, shouldn’t involve too much focus on the past. Too often I hear of people being told by well-meaning family and friends that it is time to “move on.” However there is a difference between become fixated on getting the loved one back and finding comfort in memories.
In their studies of people who move through grief with resilience, Bonanno and his colleagues found that these people spend time drawing comfort from memories of their loved ones. In their minds, they relive their favorite stories or have conversations with their loved one or spend time looking through old photo albums.
All relationships are complex and have their own set of dynamics. Yet Bonanno states that “the accuracy of our memories does not determine how we grieve; that is determined by what we do with our memories, how we experience them, and what we take from them during bereavement. (71)” In other words, even if the details of the relationship are somewhat troublesome, you can still use joyful memories to find comfort because we grieve memories not the details.
During my own grief, I knew nothing about this research. But because I had an 18-month old son, I wanted to keep stories of his father alive for him. I created several different memory books in an attempt to do so. One of these books was a scrapbook full of photos and stories of my happy memories of meeting, marrying, and enjoying life with John. I remember when I completed the book, I had the distinct sense that I had turned a corner in my grief experience. Grief no longer felt debilitating and overwhelming.
There is a group of people who may find themselves unable to come up with happy memories. These people include those for whom the death brings a sense of relief—perhaps they have had a long and exhausting journey of care-giving, perhaps their loved ones were suffering a great deal of pain, or perhaps the relationship was very difficult. Relief in these situations can be a natural human response. The point of the management of grief is never to force any healing strategy on every situation. However, Bonanno states that relief changes over time and even people in this group may eventually find solace and healing in happy memories.
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