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Hanging On to Items that Trigger Memories

Things representing a lost loved one can affect us in profound ways.

Key points

  • The simple things we shared with another person, where the meaning has changed without their presence, can affect us in profound ways.
  • Recalling the past, intentionally or unintentionally, will elicit an emotional response.
  • Acceptance of loss is not resignation motivated by distress or anguish.

The complexity of adapting to the changed circumstances of loss may lead to a sense of being lost in indecision about things that do not necessarily need to be decided at the time. Should we keep or discard a beautiful note written by someone we had loved and lost? Should we save or give away a deceased loved one’s possessions?

Creating more change may be our attempt to achieve resolution or avoid familiar situations that activate distress. Whereas change may help some of us in our efforts to restore ourselves, for others it may be further disorienting.

Recalling the past, intentionally or unintentionally, will elicit an emotional response. The possessions of a deceased loved one, or an item—even an email— that reminds us of the passion we once felt toward another can activate memories along with both enjoyable and painful emotions.

Memory is an adaptive process that enables us to use the past to imagine new possibilities. The aftermath of any kind of loss involves integrating memories of someone’s presence with the reality of their absence. We rely on memories to continue our relationship with people we have loved and to extend their presence within us into the future. This integration also involves adjusting our identity to changed circumstances. We may also grow into new personal roles and find new meanings in life, along with any meaning we derive from loss. Renowned psychoanalyst and philosopher Robert Stolorow believes the term “recovery” is a misnomer for those who have suffered a loss (Stolorow, 2011). The integration of the shattered world we once knew with an expanded emotional world depends, he believes, on the extent to which pain finds a relational home in which it can be held. Such is the challenge of people who encounter a significant loss: finding a place where grief can be understood, where longing can rest.

In the past, experts on grief have suggested that people confront the reality of their loss, review events that occurred around that time, focus on memories, and work toward detachment (Stroebe & Stroebe, 1991). Thankfully, contemporary research has shifted these goals focusing instead on how we make sense of our suffering, find meaning in loss, and reconsider who we are (Neimeyer & Thompson, 2014; Strecher, 2016). The concept of meaning-making, sometimes called sense-making, technically referred to as “cognitive semiotics,” has a long history dating from Ancient Greece to today’s cognitive sciences and psychological studies (Konderak, 2019). The tradition of cognitive semiotics concerns dynamic meaning-making, which refers to how meanings change, rather than freezing a particular significance at a given moment (Konderak, 2019). Implicit meanings are those that we feel but for which we do not have words. We sense the meanings in our bodies. The simple things we shared with another person, where the meaning has changed without their presence, can affect us in profound ways.

Acceptance of loss is not resignation motivated by distress or anguish; it is a compassionate recognition that we have these feelings. Acceptance is a recognition that, despite our losses and feeling lost, we still have the power to be safe, to control, to problem-solve, to participate in life, and to partake in giving. We can perceive our feelings, live them, and accept them as an indication of what is happening now.

When emotions are continuous, a particular process occurs whereby thoughts and emotions repeatedly reactivate one another. Thoughts can trigger emotion just as emotion motivates thoughts and images (Lerner & Keltner, 2000). This circularity of thought and emotion is familiar to people who have recently experienced a significant loss—from a ruptured relationship to the death of a loved one. At times, the continuity of emotions and related thoughts may seem oppressive or exhausting. For example, continuous activation of distress can result from living in a home that was shared with a deceased loved one, and the surviving partner may believe they have to immediately change their physical environment. Similarly, living in the same city or sharing a profession with a former partner may have the same effect.

For many years I have kept a table that had belonged to my paternal grandparents and served as a relic of their presence in my life. On the table was a bust of Goethe that had belonged to my late husband’s grandfather. Recently, as I moved the table a few feet one of the legs broke, the bust of Goethe fell against a wall and then crashed onto the floor. The once lovely bust lay shattered alongside the broken table.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a philosophical, political, scientific, and literary scholar whose work has had far-reaching influence. I could understand why my late husband’s grandfather, who was a professor of music and romance languages, had this bust of Goethe in his study. But now, the bust that had lived in our home for decades, and who had even worn a Santa hat during the Christmas season, was broken beyond repair, as was the cherished table once owned by my grandparents.

What should I do or feel about Goethe and the table? I thanked them for being with me for all of these years and for providing reminders of the past. Sadly, I said goodbye recognizing that it is not the presence of an object, a note, or any other item that actually connects us to our past. What connects us to those we have loved and lost lives on and is felt inside of us.

[Excerpted in part from my book, Grief Isn't Something to Get Over: Finding a Home for Memories and Emotions After Losing a Loved One.]


Konderak, P. (2019). Perspectives on the study of meaning-making. In P. Konderak (Ed.), Cognitive semiotics: Perspectives on the study of meaning-making (pp. 5–12). Paper & Tinta.

Lerner, J. S., & Keltner, D. (2000). Beyond valence: Toward a model of emotion specific influences on judgment and choice. Cognition and Emotion, 14(4), 473–493.

Neimeyer, R. A., & Thompson, B. E. (2014). Meaning making and the art of grief therapy. In B. E. Thompson & R. A. Neimeyer (Eds.), Grief and the expressive arts: Practices for creating meaning (pp. 3–13). Routledge.

Stolorow, R. D. (2011). Psychoanalytic inquiry: Vol. 35. World, affectivity, trauma: Heidegger and post-Cartesian psychoanalysis. Routledge.

Stroebe, M., & Stroebe, W. (1991). Does “grief work” work? Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 59(3), 479–482.

Strecher, V. J. (2016). Life on purpose: How living for what matters most changes everything. Harper.

Source: Mary Lamia
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