The Healing Power of Remembrance

I talk often about the power of story. Rarely, though, have I been so confronted with just how powerful story and remembrance can be specifically in the face of grief as I was this Monday at a talk at the New York Open Center. 

In a discussion billed as “Keeping Alive the Memories of Lost Loved Ones for Healing and Resilience,” three luminaries—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Soledad O’Brien, and Allison Gilbert—spoke openly about their own experiences and shed light on why the more you honor your family and friends who have passed, the more likely you are to reach your fullest potential in the present.

man looking at photos shows power of remembrance to heal during grieving process after death of a loved one

The Ambivalence around Memories for Those Who Are Grieving

“When loss is fresh, there is a school of thought that resurrecting memories is too painful. But the opposite is actually true,” said Allison Gilbert, author most recently of Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive.

Anyone who has experienced loss will nod their heads in recognition at Gilbert’s words. It is in this time of need that other people so often remain quiet because they simply don’t know what to say.   

Sheryl Sandberg, who has been making the talk-show rounds in support of her new book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, echoes that experience, recently saying that after her husband Dave died, “People were so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they hardly said anything at all.”

When Sandberg lost her husband in 2015, she lost her bearings; and her book is as much a helpful guide for those who have suffered a recent loss as it is for those who aren’t sure how to talk about loss or approach their friends who are grieving. 

“I think a lot of people wanted to reach out to her, but they didn’t know how,” says Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “You know, there’s this whole question of, Are you reopening a wound or something? And of course, what she would say is ‘You’re not reopening the wound. I mean, it’s, like, open and gaping.’” [Time]

Nostalgia: Research Says It's Good

“There’s no time limit for grieving,” Gates said at the New York Open Center.

“And there is no roadmap to remembering,” added Gilbert. “Mourning allows you to be passive when you need to be passive. But at some point you’ve got to pivot from passive mourning to active remembrance.”

Her book Passed and Present hones in on highly specific ways to keep memories of lost loved ones alive, from memorializing a family recipe on a platter to creating a tribute book in your loved one’s memory. (I highly recommend Gilbert’s book for anyone hungry for ways to keep the spirit of your lost loved ones near.)

Taking intentional steps to remember those of our loved ones who are no longer with us is essential to healing our grief, building our resilience, and empowering our positive action in the world. Indeed, there is a huge body of current research that shows nostalgia—a sentimental longing for the past—is good for us, Gilbert said.

“Momentous life events, the primary fodder of nostalgia, entail cherished time spent with family, friends, and relationship partners…. which, when reflected upon, serve to impart meaning,” reads one hallmark study.

As Gilbert describes, “When we feel an intense bond with loved ones from our past, we're more likely to feel similar bonds with those around us in the present,” and this deep sense of connection in turn may assuage our grief.

The Value in Active Remembering

Gilbert’s children were born years after her mother’s death, and she said she “had this profound need to keep their memories alive for my children.” One powerful way to do that is through story sharing. “I don’t tell my kids stories about my mom and my dad. I tell them stories about their grandmother and their grandfather.”

“How we really communicate is through narrative,” O’Brien said. We are connecting people through the narrative: “You tell the story about your lost loved ones—it’s what you pass on. The narrative is what makes people live even if they’re dead.”

Memories are the connective tissue that binds one generation to the next, and the active nature of remembering is healing.

“The prescription for joy and healing after loss is to remember,” Gilbert said.

Legacy Books as Memory Prompts

Photographs of our lost loved ones serve as effective prompts for jogging our memories and actively engaging in storytelling about them, Gilbert said.

Capturing and preserving the deceased’s stories—their values and personality and experiences—in a tribute memory book, is an even more compelling way to cement their legacy. More importantly, a legacy book such as this is a living testimony in that it will continue to prompt story sharing and reminiscence about your lost loved one.

I personally experienced this last week when my son (who is seven going on 40) entered my room in his pajamas, hiding something behind his back. “Mom, I was wondering. I know it’s not our typical bedtime routine,” he began (see, 7 going on 40!), “but do you think we could look at this book about Nanny tonight for our bedtime story?” 

He produced the small memory book I had made for him after his great-grandmother’s passing; she had lived with us and the two had been exceptionally close. The fact that my son proactively sought this time to remember her—and that he proudly retold many of their stories while we snuggled—warmed my heart in a most special way. 

Gilbert described nostalgia, like empathy, as a social emotion: “It brings you closer to people not just in your past, but also in your present.” I can attest to that.

May you, too, find peace—and joy—in remembrance.

Related Reading:

  • Notes from a Funeral: Sharing memories about lost loved ones to heal—and why we don't honor our families through story sharing now. 
  • Mommy & Me: How a struggle to tell my mother’s whole story turned into a more intimate portrait of love
  • Legacy Book FAQ: Answers to some common questions about what goes in a legacy book, and how they are created