Mourning the Past While Living in the Present

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

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Last night, I fell asleep trying to piece together the fragments of a memory. It was a summer evening at an outdoor concert hall of some sort. I remember my father was performing on the stage, although I can't remember what or why. My mother sat on a blanket by a tree keeping one eye on him and the other on me and my siblings as we played barefoot on the green lawn. We turned open-armed circles in the grass until we tumbled over, resetting ourselves and spinning like wobbly tops over and over again. As the day smoothly shifted to night in one of those transitions that envelopes everyone it touches in the magic of twilight, I returned—dizzy and grass-stained—to my mother's side.

As I describe the memory, it seems almost vivid. Yet in truth, most of the details are gone. The feelings are real but, like a dream you struggle to remember as it dissolves in the light of the morning sun, the pictures have turned into blurry shapes and forms I can no longer make out. This is one of those memories I'd choose to live in forever if I could, because it represents a time that was right, innocent, safe, and complete. I just wish I knew it was real. Our brains have a habit of filling in the blanks when our memories fail, and I know my mind takes romanticized license where recollections of my childhood are concerned.

blurry photo of two children cartwheeling in the grass

I am someone who struggles to reconcile the past with the present, even though I know little good can come from constantly looking in the rearview mirror; walking against the earth's rotation won't stop time from moving forward. By focusing solely on my yesterdays, I'll always be distracted by what's being left behind.

My rational brain tells me that, in order to find balance and happiness, I must also be aware of what's around me and in front of me. I will never be content if I'm constantly yearning for something that's gone. I know I have to accept my losses and the ways in which life must change, but my emotional brain says, "...that sucks."  

My entire immediate family recently found themselves under the same roof, which probably happens about twice a decade. As I looked around the dining table at my father and siblings, I realized we felt small, fractured, and not entirely whole. With food on the table, good health and 20+ beautiful grandchildren underfoot, how could I possibly focus on what was wrong as opposed to what was right? Am I defective because I struggle to appreciate a song, no matter how beautiful it is, simply because one voice is missing?

I don't know.

When you feel like someone irreplaceable is gone, it's really hard not to look back and lament what life was before. It's hard to accept that certain moments, feelings, people, and realities from the past will always feel dreamlike and just out of reach. Sometimes you may wonder if these moments were ever even real.

It's sad that these days are gone, and no one can tell you this isn't a sadness worth being felt because it absolutely is. But as I sit here, I alternate between the vision of someone grieving the past and losing themselves bit by bit and the vision of someone growing more and more complete as they use both the pieces of the past and the present to construct a new sense of self, family, and purpose. Although these two 'selves' seem a direct contradiction of one another, I realize we have the capacity to be both at the same time. I realize that it's normal to mourn the past while still being appreciative of the present and the future.

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7 Comments on "Mourning the Past While Living in the Present"

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  1. Werner Loell  June 26, 2021 at 2:19 am Reply

    What can one say but in order to heal we must grieve. Denying grief is harmful later in life and the solution to grief is to grieve however the difficulty. Each person grieves differently and however long it takes, grief is for life. But the bereaved will heal to some extent and the deeper the love the greater the emotional trauma, all part of life’s journey.

  2. TAHNYA L FORD  June 6, 2019 at 5:51 pm Reply

    Thank you thank you thank you for putting into words my feelings. My days feel so clouded with grief. I have a hard time “enjoying” anything even when I should and have a right to…….

  3. TJ  June 6, 2019 at 11:15 am Reply

    This article is perfectly timed for me. I am nearing my own Birthday this week and at the same time the one year anniversary of the passing of my best friend and companion of over ten years. I struggle every day right now with what would we have been doing a year ago today because we were together every single day. I’m also attempting to find the balance of meaningful memories put in perspective with what am I doing today to live a life to honor the past and embrace what is good, right and meaningful in today. I see it as sort of a yin and yang of grief and living purposefully. It’s a bittersweet pill this week and month. Thank you for a perfectly timed and well put article that spoke directly to the heart of the matter I’m living.

  4. Marthese Vella  April 15, 2015 at 1:18 am Reply

    This has really touched me. It’s the best article I’ve read so far since the loss of our son six and a half weeks ago. Thank you, I feel so much the need of support and I’m looking all over. I’m thankful I found your blog.

    • Eleanor  April 15, 2015 at 9:18 am Reply

      Oh Marthese,

      I’m so sorry about the death of your son. I’m sure things are very difficult right now. I’m glad you found us as well and let us know if you are looking for information on any particular topic.

  5. Magaly Rivera  March 2, 2015 at 3:16 pm Reply

    Thank you for sharing these invaluable reflections. As our family mourns the recent loss of my former husband, father of my children & best friend, I’m drawn to your words and wisdom. I’m almost angry for moments and opportunities to connect with him that are lost and yet grateful for all the great communication and wonderful friendship we managed to maintain for the love of our kids. Mainly, my heart grieves for my children and so many things in the future where they will need their father and he simply won’t be there. I want to recall his desires for them, so at those moments I can share with them his wishes but still I wonder what if I didn’t get it right. Why didn’t we have those conversations more often and so I seek the spiritual realm for ways to know. My condolences to you and yours, may God’s light, cherished memories sustain you.

  6. Anne Walker  February 26, 2015 at 6:24 pm Reply

    Wow. It has been a long time since I read something that so perfectly articulated my thoughts and my feelings concerning the evolving emotions I have experienced since the loss of my father in 2013. Thank you for this validation. I feel as though I have been given a great gift tonight, one of understanding and peace.

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