Struggling to Remember the Past

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

Fourteen years after my mother’s death, I find I’m not only grieving her but also my memory of her. I mean that literally, as in, I’m grieving the loss of actual memories as I struggle to really remember her in any tangible way. I want to feel her presence and see her clearly in my mind, but she’s impossible to recreate. She’s more abstract to me now than anything, and that’s gutting. 

We always say our grief evolves and grows with us as time goes on. Sometimes that means finding new points of comfort and connection, and sometimes it means stumbling upon new losses. I guess I’ve stumbled again.  

As time goes by, I feel so far away and disconnected from the past that I suddenly have an intense yearning to go back. To fill in my spotty memory with the smallest of things, like the smell of my grandmother’s freshly washed towels or the sound of my mother’s voice as she takes the kitchen wall phone off the receiver and says “hello.”  

I like many things about my life in the present. But if I could turn around and walk into the past, knowing I’d find my way back here again to the people I love, I’d do it in a heartbeat. No one tells you when you’re young that life can change so much. That one day, you may realize the people and places of your past feel like they’re from a completely different story. 

I’m suddenly almost angry that I can’t go back to before. I accept that my mother is dead, but must not fully accept that the past is the past because I keep reaching for it and finding over and over again that it’s gone. It’s a repetitive ache, like the chronic pain of a once broken bone. 

People have shared with us that they struggle to remember the past and their loved ones, which is a troubling secondary loss. They connect to an idea of their loved one but struggle to access specific memories of them. Sometimes this is because their memories faded over time and sometimes because they had limited memories in the first place. 

I recognize that many people early on in their grief fear this will eventually happen, so I’m sorry if this conversation exacerbates your worry. Remember, there’s no guarantee you will ever feel any particular way in grief. And if you struggle to remember the past someday, know there are many ways to feel psychologically connected to your loved one that can bring you comfort.

All that said, let’s take a few minutes to brainstorm ways to connect with memories of a loved one, especially when you feel disconnected.  

remember the past

Ways to Connect With and Remember the Past

  1. Watch old videos: Old videos may be the next best thing to revisiting the past because you can actually see and hear your loved ones.
  2. Look at photos: Photos aren’t quite as dimensional as video, but they can provide a great visual of people and places in the past. Photos also tend to trigger memories you may have otherwise forgotten.
  3. Write or journal about the past: Try the journaling prompt from our article I Miss the Sound of Your Voice: Grieving Sensory Memory
  4. Talk to people who knew your loved one or shared your past: Relationships are so unique that each person tends to have a different set of memories related to shared people and places.
  5. Look at objects or visit places that remind you of the person: Again, sometimes context can trigger memories. Things like being in a place your loved one frequented, holding an object that reminds you of them, looking at their handwriting can help you remember.

Ways to Preserve Present Day Memories

There’s an added layer to this conversation for me. My mother’s death created a framework for understanding loss, and now I see how we all fit within it. I spend the same moments with my kids that I believe my mother spent with me, and they feel so treasured and memorable at the moment. But I think to myself, someday, we may struggle to access memories of these moments. This home that we know every crack and corner of will seem like a place from a dream, and maybe I’ll even be an abstract memory to them. 

Maybe you think I sound neurotic, and maybe I’m okay with that. If you have similar struggles, here are a few quick tips for remembering present-day experiences.

  1. Be present! The number one rule to remembering something is to pay attention to it. If you’re distracted by X, Y, or Z, you will be less likely to remember your experiences later. Put down your phone, tell your brain you’re taking a little time off from worry, and try and live in your experience. I know, easier said than done, but it’s worth a try.
  2. Keep a journal: We know keeping up with a journaling practice is hard, but journaling has many positive benefits! One is that it’s a record of your life that you can look back on. Throw away your preconceived notions about what it means to be a journaler. You can draw, doodle, write one sentence a day, bullet journal, keep a gratitude journal – whatever works for you. If you’re interested in journaling as a tool for coping with grief, check out our self-paced grief journaling online course.
  3. Take photos and videos: Preserve memories as often as you can. Though, be careful not to get so caught up in preserving the moment that you sacrifice being present in it.

Do you have a tip for remembering the past or preserving the present? Share it in the comments below.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

Let’s be grief friends.

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30 Comments on "Struggling to Remember the Past"

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  1. Allison  May 6, 2021 at 3:38 am Reply

    I lost my mom when I was 10 years old to cancer, it’s been 9 years since then and it’s still hard to think about. I don’t have much memory of her because I was so young, and probably because I blocked some of it out. I have some photos, but my father isn’t much of a sentimental person, so when we had to leave something behind while moving house, photos were what we left. I tried to smuggle as many as I could into my suitcase, but I’ll never have the rest back. Luckily my mom had many good friends, and my maternal grandmother is very close, so I’ve been told a lot of things about her, but I still can’t help but grieve the fact that I hardly knew or remember her. She was sick, in the majority of the time I could remember, I always wish I could think of happy things we did together, but there’s very few.

  2. Jayne Westmoreland  May 2, 2021 at 7:55 pm Reply

    My husband passed away five and one half years ago. I now facilitate a grief class. your comments have help me as I help users get through their grief.

  3. Joan K Fontenot  April 27, 2021 at 3:54 am Reply

    I just lost my only child. Sophie, 17 years old. She was reluctant to reconnect her friendship with Maria, the driver of accident. Maria, was abusive to her and cruel, but she was familiar to my child. So maria begged for a week to reunite with sophie. Sophie agreed to go to town with maria, she was unaware that maria had just taken drugs. Maria wrecked and flipped the vehicle . Maria is alive my child is dead. I am struggling with the regret that I had no idea of the drug use. Now she may not be charged, it is depending on her toxicology. My child is dead and maria acts like it’s no big deal. And to top it off I found out through journals how cruel her father was to her. He had even made her overdose and lie that he was one who actually gave her pills. I’m just mad I didn’t know all this. I want my daughters abusers to serve justice. What can I do. I lost my child. My friend my life

  4. Dawn Freeman  April 12, 2021 at 9:21 am Reply

    My husband died in December of 2019. I’ve smelled his cologne more times than I can count, I’ve listened to his voicemail, watched home videos, read letters from our early days together, looked at photos of us at various stages in our marriage of 31 years, and done countless art revolving around my feelings about him. These have kept me connected to him and have reinforced memories that I want to cherish allowing the more painful memories of our marriage to take a back seat. Keeping playlists of songs that remind me of him are also helpful, as one song states; “I keep pushing these blues, because I don’t want to lose what I loved about you”.

    • Michelle breen  April 23, 2021 at 6:16 am Reply

      I just lost my husband on april3. It was also our youngest sons18th birthday😟miss him beyond words….

  5. charlotte pion  April 6, 2021 at 3:35 pm Reply

    thank you for sharing your stories. this really helps me . My husband passed 27 months ago. I’m feeling depressed and lonely even though I have friends around. It is scary to think we could forget even a single moment with the ones we lost

  6. Debra  March 25, 2021 at 3:49 pm Reply

    I just saw this post and my heart sunk a little further down if that’s even possible. My 41 year old loving and very loved son lost his lifelong battle with anxiety and depression in March, 2020……one year ago this month. So shocking and unexpected and heartbreaking. Immediately my mind shut down to almost every memory I had of him. I still cannot look at pictures or videos. I so badly want the memories back but somewhere in me I guess I know they will only reinforce the gut wrenching grief that still exists. My daughter remembers so well and it is such a gift to me when she shares one with me. At that moment we can grieve together and it helps. Thanks for several suggestions that I want to try to bring his memories back to me. I feel his presence close to me and he started sending me cardinals almost every day. Before his death I’d never seen a cardinal in my yard. Now I get several a day. He is with me in spirit. But my Lord I miss that boy and grieve for his wife and 2 children unceasingly. I don’t want to remember only his tragic death. I want to remember the joy and laughter he brought into our home. He was the bright light in our family. His beautiful smile is sorely missed.

  7. Ana Voges  March 24, 2021 at 8:35 am Reply

    My grief now encompasses 3 deaths. When I think of one the others come to the fore. My husband of 39 years died 13 years ago, my grandchild died 5 years ago and my partner of 5 years a month ago. In my grief they are all gone. Most of all I miss their voices, I cry for them all and at times I cannot stop.

    • Yolanda  April 1, 2021 at 9:33 pm Reply

      So sorry for your loss.

  8. Mary from West Virginia  March 22, 2021 at 11:03 am Reply

    Thank you for this very timely article – once again, you’ve given voice to a struggle I could not articulate.
    I can’t remember my last wife’s laugh; others can. I feel like I’m betraying her in a small way. On the other hand, I put spring flowers in an old rum bottle we found on a beach in Bermuda, and the wonderful time we had there thirty years ago cam back to me in vivid detail.
    I never know where grief will take me!

  9. Levi's Mom  March 20, 2021 at 9:30 am Reply

    Suggestion for photos: Don’t leave them in your phone or on your camera. Print them and place in an album. I know. Many people store these electronically and view that way. Maybe it works for some, but the more senses one uses, the stronger the memory. My Asian SIL told me that in Taiwan children are encouraged not only to “follow along with their finger” but also to mouth the words silently as they read to reinforce the visual memory. Spend time, make time if you must, and look at those photos with others, especially children. Talk about the memories associated with them: what did the pizza taste like? do you remember the thundering sound of the waterfall, the rush of the waves? the colors of the sunset/sunrise? I’ve recently tackled the long-ignored task of organizing 20+ years of photos of my daughter who died in late 2016. My only child. I am struggling to remember events, places, surrounding circumstances. Worse than that, she told me several times after she grew up that she had no childhood memories. Where were they? Stored in boxes! Suggestion if you want to be helpful: offer to take photos of parents with their kids or grands. I have very few of us together. That was a good article especially the suggestion to get out from behind the camera and live in the moment. I used to have others video events so that I could watch in real-time. I remember those events more vividly.

    • Angelia  April 15, 2021 at 5:29 am Reply

      My only child was killed in a car accident in which she was a passenger 1 year ago. She’d just turned 29. I can’t agree more on the picture taking – getting out from behind the camera. I don’t have that many of us together because we usually took them of each other. When pictures and videos, cards, letters, messages etc are all that are left, you’ll want as many as possible. So sorry for all of our losses. ⚘

  10. Barb Laureys  March 20, 2021 at 2:40 am Reply

    I’ve lost many people over the last thirty years, starting witj my grandparents and getting more difficult until I’ve lost mydad in June ‘20 and my mom, unexpectedly. this mo th of March ‘21. I already miss smells. I immediately began saving voicemails, photos, videos, ut how to you save smells., especially when there’s so much change underfoot to the house and belongings? Have I forgot another remembrance to tap into before it’s removed. I’m bereft that I am not dreaming or getting signs. I guess I’m very newto it all and taken a ack by the 1 -2 punch of losing both parents so closely. Watching theirfavorite tv shows and listening to their music helps.

    •  March 20, 2021 at 2:45 am Reply

      Excuse the typos please.

  11. Laine Lawson  March 19, 2021 at 10:25 pm Reply

    I can relate to much of what you wrote with a difference, your words caused Many tears to flow but the words to write here on paper will not flow so easily. I have lost two deeply loved husbands, one to lymphoma in 1998 after a vigorously fought battle of 7 years. I lost another who suffered a major heart attack whilst lying on the floor reading a book two days before Christmas in 2016. I remember everything clearly and still read letters, watch videos and have photos everywhere in my house. I cannot handle packing up and disposing of their clothes and loved possessions. Outwardly I appear to be fine, I do not socialise any more and have no interest in doing all the things I used to enjoy. I am silently sad, I do feel blessed for all the good loving I have shared. I dont feel lonely, I am content to be at home and only venture out for medical appointments, grocery shopping and hairdressing. I do not have children. I have twice tried counselling, I did not find this helpful.

  12. Mary Schlickman  March 19, 2021 at 7:34 pm Reply

    My husband passed away on April 16, 2020. He was in a care facility for physical therapy and they were locked down the day he was admitted on March 14. I saw him only twice before he died. With the help and support of my grief support group, I am able to slowly move forward. Mr husband always said to someone who lost a love one, remember the good times. I am trying to do that. I have been putting in writing, those memories that I don’t want to forget like how we met, and where we went on our first date. I recently shared those memories with my son. I realized there are things that friends and family don’t know about us. In May we are flying to my husband’s hometown for a celebration of life for his family and look forward to hearing their memories of him.

  13. Mary  March 19, 2021 at 5:33 pm Reply

    My husband died four months ago. I ordered a pastbook compiled from the last several years of his Facebook posts. It is a treasure trove of the things in our lives that meant so much to him. He posted pictures from our wedding on our Anniversary. Pictures of a visit to his grandparents’ homeplace where he reminisced about his childhood summers. Highlights of fishing with our grandson, and other equally memorable times with family. Best of all were those comments he made that went with the pictures. Yes, I shed a few tears, but his happiest times are represented in this book. It keeps his love alive and those precious memories close at hand.

  14. Kathleen Paris  March 19, 2021 at 3:25 pm Reply

    I have lost my husband and my mother. Every night I write to my husband, telling him about my day and things that would interest him when he was living. It keeps me connected to him. I have another notebook of messages that I write to my mother. I just wrote that our daughter is using her cake plates. It’s a comfort for me.

    • Yolanda  April 1, 2021 at 9:44 pm Reply

      So sorry for your loss, I do the same I write in a journal every single day. Because when my partner was alive, he always wanted to know everything I was doing.

  15. Christine Lister  March 19, 2021 at 11:49 am Reply

    I have visited places I used to go to with my husband. I’m 3.5 years from the day he died and I’ve had different emotional reactions to visiting these places. Early on I felt a physical pain and a yearning to grasp some connection to the past. Naturally tears were in abundance. More recently I have felt nostalgic even as I soak in the scenery before me. He does feel like a figment of my imagination and I have to remind myself that what we had was real and valuable. I continue to embody him as his influence in my life continues forward. But I have to consent to allowing the physical-material aspects of our relationship to remain in the past. That, too, is sad but also evidence of living in the present. It’s a tender journey we’re on … honoring our memories, staying in the present, grieving, joyfully embracing what life offers in the now.

  16. Nina G  March 19, 2021 at 10:33 am Reply

    Eleanor articulated the struggle I am going through at five years and three months after my mother died. It is a lonely feeling. I know I will never
    experience the joy I had when my mother was alive. Remembering and cherishing those memories is all I have left.

    • Nina G  March 21, 2021 at 1:05 pm Reply

      Oops, sorry for the mistake in grammar. Should have been ‘are’.

  17. Carm Russelll  March 19, 2021 at 9:09 am Reply

    Spot on again! You put into words my experience of grieving my father (1980), my 1st child (1989), my in-laws (2006 & 2012) and mostly recently my husband (2014). And keeping those connections as time passes is a grief to be processed in and of itself.

    For example…
    I love unexpected blessings. And earlier this winter I decided to listen to a recording of my husband singing. His father wanted him to sing “Because He Lives” for his funeral. It was a song they sung many times as a duet in church…the preacher and his son! But David did not think he could make it through during the service. So he and the accompanist recorded it to be played at their service. So grateful to have this to go back to. But it is what happened when I listened until the very end of the recording that allowed me that connection again. Before the recorder shut off he captured David sighing. Not unusual since the task was a difficult one. However over the past 7 yrs his singing is a joyful memory that is fading in many respects. BUT that sigh. that oh so typical moment when one accomplishes a most difficult task. It was like was hearing him “speak” all over again. And I lived that moment for as long as it lasted. And cherish every emotion it evoked up to and including sharing it with his siblings.

    Thank you again for sharing your insightful own experience on this aspect of your own grief.

  18. Earla Legault  March 19, 2021 at 9:02 am Reply

    It was about 10 years after my father died, that I realized I was forgetting things about him. I also realized I couldn’t talk about him or tell even a funny story to my young children, without getting chocked up. So I sat down at my typewriter, yes that says how long ago that was 😊. With my children in mind, I started typing anything I could remember about him, that I wanted them to know. I wrote about his love of children, music, cat and humour. I told the funny stories I could remember and a couple of his favourite jokes. I supplemented it with the few photographs I had and also pictures from magazines that reminded me of my father and his many interests. I wrote a few pages and on the last one, made a long list of phrases and words that summed up my dad. I also included lyrics to a song he loved. 25 years later I can look back at what I wrote about him and the memories come flooding in. I believe the act of writing about my father helped begin my healing process of grief work and coming to a better place with missing him.

    • Nina G  March 19, 2021 at 10:42 am Reply

      What a beautiful idea.

  19. Elizabeth  March 19, 2021 at 7:25 am Reply

    This hits home for me because I’ve struggled with memories from the minute my husband died (25 months ago) and I fear it’s only going to get worse. At first I vividly remembered the end, like many people. That has faded some and I hoped the “rest of our wonderful life” memories would fill in but they haven’t. My therapist suggested it’s my brain protecting me and healing from the trauma. This makes sense to me because when I do remember things, even good things, I still mostly cry over them. Much of my time is spent trying not to think of anything at all so I can successfully work and make it through the day. It’s a terribly sad way to live even if I’m “ok” on the surface, and it’s scary to think by the time I’m emotionally capable of enjoying our memories they may have faded forever.

    • JoAnn  March 19, 2021 at 2:31 pm Reply

      ” At first I vividly remembered the end, like many people. That has faded some and I hoped the “rest of our wonderful life” memories would fill in but they haven’t.” I keep waiting for the good memories to come back too. I lost my husband almost 3 and 1/2 years ago and it all just keeps getting farther and farther away.
      I don’t know if it’s my brain protecting me or if I’m just in denial. I recently realized that even while sitting beside his hospice bed I didn’t believe he was going to die and now I am filled with regret for what I didn’t say or do. It’s so hard.

  20. Shauna  March 19, 2021 at 6:34 am Reply

    I wake up sometimes and emotions come over me and I cry for the past. For the people, the smells, the feel of certain things. I long to go back to being a little girl again. My childhood was so wonderful, I miss that. My grandparents, aunts, uncles and being with everyone in a room at the old house. I feel such sadness even writing these words. I am very good at helping others grieve, as I work as a palliative care nurse. I even get scared to think of what’s next? Thank you for your story, it was like I wrote it myself.

  21. Rob  March 19, 2021 at 5:15 am Reply

    My wife passed away four year’s ago next month. In many ways I miss her more than ever. The house is filled with pictures and photo cushions of her that definitely help.
    I had four voluntary jobs that helped fill my time and gave me social contact, but that all stopped suddenly a year ago with the Corona Virus.

  22. pauline Stacey  March 19, 2021 at 5:02 am Reply

    well, my husband of 50 years died Nov 2019, just 16 months ago, and the
    grieving does not ease.
    what I wanted to comment on was remembering the past..
    I can`t get past seeing him after he had died, in the hospital bed.
    I really struggle to remember the good times, as several people have
    told me to..
    my mum died just under 50 years ago,, 48 years I guess, and I can remember
    her, I can hear her voice, in my head, not physically, and she remains, as always
    very close to me.


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