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Grief, Holidays, and Sensory Memories

Holidays contain countless activators for sensory memories.

Key points

  • Remembering is what makes us grieve, and holidays can activate poignant reminders of loss.
  • Olfactory, echoic, and iconic memories are often triggered during the holidays.
  • Memory enables us to “find” the people we have lost, especially when we are feeling lost without them.

Holidays are points in time that remind us of people who are close to our hearts but are no longer with us. A loved one’s absence, amidst joyful memories of past shared holidays, evokes the bittersweetness of grief. Remembering is what makes us grieve, and holidays activate poignant reminders of loss.

Olfactory Memories of Loss

Loss-related memories of our experiences with smells—olfactory memories—can become activated by present circumstances that match stored information. For example, the aroma of what our mother or father was cooking as we crossed the threshold of their doorway may remain a profound experience.

The smell-scape of our world cues us because memories are attached to our perception of our environment. Various odors can increase our heart rate or elevate our blood pressure, yet on the other hand, something we smell can lower our heart rate and blood pressure, thereby creating a sense of well-being or calmness (Herz et al., 2004).

We may feel less at the mercy of memories that activate painful emotions if we can become curious about what is happening within us at a given moment, and better understand our responses. Whereas the scent of a Christmas tree or a roasting Thanksgiving turkey may activate memories that, in turn, create grief, we may have to remind ourselves that we grieve because we remember when things were different.

Echoic (Auditory) Holiday Memories

An entire atmosphere is created by holiday music, where the seemingly inescapable presence of the season is thrust upon us, erecting a background filled with memories of shared enjoyment that trigger grief. As with other memories, recall of an auditory memory often results from an environmental trigger.

The role of music has been studied as a means to provide consolation in grief (see Viper, Thyren, & Horowitz, 2020), in relation to mourning rituals across time and culture (see Davidson and Garrido, 2016), and regarding its intentional use during a mourner’s grief journey (see DiMaio & Economos, 2017). However, upon losing a loved one, hearing a particular piece of shared music can activate joyful memories that lead to re-experiencing loss-related feelings.

Auditory memories are enduring, and the lyrics and sounds of holiday music run deep in our memories, reminding us of our past experiences. Holding on to the enjoyable memories that are activated by holiday music, and resisting it as a reminder of what we are missing, may be a seemingly impossible undertaking. Nevertheless, music can enable us to imagine our way into an ongoing relationship with the deceased. For example, a colleague told me that he plays the favorite music of a lost friend to “spend time with him.”

Involuntary Memory, Taste Sensations, and Loss

Involuntary memories occur without our conscious effort when certain cues encountered in everyday life, such as taste, trigger recollections of the past (see Marcˇetic, 2017). Because the sensory mechanisms induced by eating also include the context of consuming food, such as where and how food is eaten, and with whom, we might expect that the loss of a loved one could influence the survivor’s appetite and response to food in general. For example, if we always ate holiday meals with a spouse, partner, or child, their absence will be painfully conspicuous.

Events that involve a favorite food of a deceased loved one have the potential to trigger a grief response. The same food may eventually be eaten with pleasurable reminders, but that takes time. For example, Sheryl and her husband always looked forward to eating eggs Benedict at his cousin’s home on New Year’s Day. The mere idea of eating eggs Benedict filled her with sorrow. In the first year after his loss, she avoided the New Year’s gathering, knowing how devastated she would feel without her husband present. She could not imagine looking at the eggs without sobbing. Instead of staying home alone, which seemed equally painful, she made arrangements to celebrate the new year by taking a long walk with a friend.

Some people might say that Sheryl should be strong, face the event, eat the eggs Benedict, and deal with her sadness. Such exposure, long before she has adapted to loss, is not only painful but adds another painful memory to her already existing ones. Taking the time to accumulate new memories of holidays, if possible, could help her when she returns to the gathering she shared with her husband.

Iconic (Sight) Memory and the Holidays

Decorations, Christmas trees, and shelves of potential gifts are visual cues that may trigger memories, along with difficult challenges, for people in mourning. We must decide for ourselves what we can tolerate at any given moment in terms of activating psychological distress or anguish. Instead of believing we should be able to take in a sensory experience without anguish, we should instead make a mental note of our response as a baseline for the next time we do the same. Our level of tolerance for exposing ourselves to visual stimuli that trigger memories of the deceased changes over time and with new life experiences.

Holiday Longing

During the holiday season, we may experience sensations of distress as yearning and longing for reconnection, despite the impossibility of achieving that goal when a loved one has died. A common literary theme includes the quest for reunification or the effort to find one’s way home. The theme has also been used to depict a safe place, such as in the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s writing of sheltering his soul “among remote lost objects, in some dark and silent place” (Rilke, 1907/1995). Indeed, grief is often silently held.

Psychologist John Archer (1999) proposed that grief is a byproduct of human attachment, a price we pay “for being able to love in the way we do” (p. 5). However, Archer maintained that because grief compels us to search for the person who was lost, it is a maladaptive pattern of commitment. I disagree. Memory enables us to “find” the people we have lost, especially when we are feeling lost without them. Although we may experience grief upon remembering when things were different, we can also find gratification in acknowledging the enjoyable emotional memories that once made us smile, including the sights, sounds, tastes, and scents of the holiday season.

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 (APA Books, 2022)

References

Archer, J. (1999). The nature of grief: The evolution and psychology of reactions to loss. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203360651

Davidson, J. W. & Garrido, S. (2016). On music and mourning. In J. W. Davidson & S. Garrido, Music and Mourning, Routledge. DOI: http://doi.org/10.4324/9781315596648.

DiMaio, L. & Economos, A. (2017). Exploring the role of music in grief. Bereavement Care. 36. 65-74. 10.1080/02682621.2017.1348585.

Herz, R. S., Eliassen, J., Beland, S., & Souza, T. (2004). Neuroimaging evidence for the emotional potency of odor-evoked memory. Neuropsychologia, 42(3), 371–378. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2003. 08.009

Marcetic, A. (2017, September 11–16). The essence of time, a piece of eternity, and Proust’s philosophy of identity. Theatrum Mundi VIII, Inter-University Center, Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Rilke, R. M. (1995). Love song. In S. Mitchell (Trans.), Ahead of all parting: The selected poetry and prose of Rainer Maria Rilke (pp. 29–30). Random House. (Original work published 1907)

Viper, M., Thyrén, D., & Horwitz, E.. (2020). Music as consolation—The importance of music at farewells and mourning. OMEGA - Journal of Death and Dying. 85. 003022282094239. 10.1177/0030222820942391

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