Quirks of Memory

A Retrieval System Roundup

Why Holidays Can Trigger Grief-Related Memories

The holiday season carries contextual cues that can trigger memories of loss

Has this ever happened to you? You’re in the midst of a happy occasion, then suddenly a sad memory comes to mind at what seems like an inappropriate time, as if to ambush you. Decorating for the holidays, shopping for gifts, or sitting down to holiday dinner with family may generally be happy times, yet such acts can suddenly prompt memories of someone who is no longer with you, which might make you sad during what is supposed to be a happy time.

An analogous situation happened to me recently.

At a research conference, I suddenly found myself flooded with memories of my colleague, Dave McCabe, who passed away unexpectedly in mid-January, 2011. At times, the memories would have me tearing up; at times, they would have me laughing, like when someone stood up to ask a question of a speaker, and I suddenly remembered an instance in which that same person stood up to ask a question at the same conference years ago--Dave was sitting to the left of me, telling me something funny right as that person was standing to ask a question.

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At first it seemed strange: Why should I not experience daily triggers of sadness anymore in my work environment, yet travel to a conference nearly two years after Dave’s death and be flooded with memories of him? Was I somehow regressing in the grief process? Right after his death, nearly everything in my work environment was a trigger of sadness: The suddenly-unoccupied office next to mine, the laboratory still marked “McCabe lab” in which his students were still carrying on their work, the mailbox in the mailroom labeled “McCabe”. So many things seemed to be a glaring reminder that he was gone that in the early days after his death it felt like it might be impossible to come into work without continually experiencing triggers of sadness and grief. But it didn’t stay this way. Eventually, walking past his empty office no longer triggered tears, and most of us could go about our workdays without these things serving as powerful triggers of grief anymore.

So, why the sudden flood of memories of him at this conference?

The reason likely has to do with the role of external cues in triggering memories.

Your environment can be a powerful trigger of memories. Being in the same physical environment that you were in when you initially experienced something surrounds you with cues that trigger more memories than you would otherwise have. For instance, deep sea divers who learned a list of words underwater remembered more when tested underwater than on land, and vice versa; if they learned the list on land, they remembered more when tested on land.

The most powerful cues are those that uniquely tie to one particular memory, as opposed to tying to many different memories (Nairne, 2002; Poirier et al., 2012). For example, the Jorvik Viking Centre in York has a unique blend of odors not likely to be encountered elsewhere in a person’s life. Thus, when researchers presented this unique blend of odors to people many years after their visit to the museum, it was a powerful trigger of memories from their museum visit—they remembered more than people not given an odor cue or given a different odor.

The more uniquely a cue around you (such as a sight, a sound or a smell) connects to one particular memory as opposed to many, the more likely it is to conjure up that memory.

Because I’m in it every day, my work environment is tied to so many other memories now that it is not a unique cue for anything specific, which may explain why it no longer triggers particular memories of Dave. But the Psychonomics conference only happens once a year, always in November, and I had not attended in several years; in fact, the last time I did, I had traveled there with Dave and another colleague. So, as a context, the conference more uniquely tied to particular memories involving Dave than my own current work environment does, which may explain why the sudden flood of memories of him in that context.

Similarly, during the holiday season, you are surrounded by unique cues that only come about at that time of year—sights like Christmas lights, sounds like holiday music, smells like fresh wreaths and holiday food; there are even people who you only see this time of year. These things might overlap with past holiday memories in a way that your more typical everyday situations do not. So, you may not have thought about someone you lost in awhile, then the cue of family or holiday surroundings brings back memories. Such triggering of memories may not even be voluntary. So, the return of long-lost memories during the holidays and the sadness that may accompany them do not necessarily indicate anything about whether someone is moving on or coping well with the loss. Its just a natural part of how memory works.

The cues that trigger memories of people we have lost may not be an all-bad thing. Although they can catch us off-guard and make us sad, they also help us to remember things that we might otherwise forget about those no longer with us and in so doing, help to keep them alive in memory.

For tips on coping with holiday reminders after a loss, click here or here for recent Psychology Today posts, or here and here.

Anne Cleary, Ph.D., is a professor at Colorado State University.

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