Nostalgia and Yearning in Grief

Understanding Grief Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley


“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.” ~Edna St. Vincent Millay

Yearning is a concept that’s hard to pin down. At its core yearning is a deep longing, a strong desire, a tenderness or sadness; but I’m not sure whether I consider it an emotion, an action, or a thing.

I asked Google because Google knows everything and it told me ‘yearning’ can be a noun – I have a yearning for home; an adjective – I have a yearning sadness, and a verb – I yearn for your embrace. I don’t know though, I think this definition seems incomplete.

You see I’ve been through grief and grief takes yearning to the next level. For those who’ve experienced loss, yearning becomes something that can’t be characterized as a noun or a verb. It becomes a state of being.

In fact, in 2007 grief researchers Paul K. Maciejewski and Holly Prigerson placed yearning front and center citing findings that it’s actually a more dominant characteristic after a death than those emotions we most typically associate with grief like anger and sadness.

Priegerson has explained their findings related to yearning in grief stating, “Grief is really about yearning and not sadness. That sense of heartache. It’s been called pangs of grief.”

After a death, there is often a strong desire to have the deceased loved one back. It takes time to integrate and accept the reality they’re gone and we continue to look for them in the places where they once belonged. We roll over and expect them to be next to us in bed or we pick up the phone to call them after a bad day. Then as our brain begins to catch up with reality and we start to acknowledge they’re gone, we struggle to hold on to, remember and recreate the things that were them like their voice or the comforting feel of their embrace.

The research indicates that yearning peaks at around 4 months and if someone continues to experience a strong sense of yearning (along with other grief symptoms) after 6 months they “might benefit from further evaluation”.

This is where I start to get hung up because 8 years after my mother’s death I still have moments when I want to see her so badly it takes my breath away.  But would I still classify this as grief yearning? It’s been 8 years, the landscape has totally changed, and I fully understand she is gone.

But if it’s not yearning then what is it?  Well, one thing I’ve noticed about these moments of intense longing is that they often occur when I’m feeling low, confused, or lost and they tend to intertwine with pining for easier times – a little like nostalgia.

A year prior to Maciejewski and Prigerson’s research a totally unrelated study took place looking at nostalgia in Southampton, England. The findings of this study, although not directly related to anything in the death, dying and bereavement realm may prove enlightening for grievers who often find themselves dreaming of times when their loved one was still alive.

The team at Southampton found that nostalgia was a very common experience with 80% of their 172 participants stating they experience nostalgia at least once a week and 42% indicating they experience it at least three or four times a week. Most interesting to us though is the finding that one of the most common triggers of nostalgia is negative affect. Which suggests that we are apt to access memories of happier times in an attempt to counteract negative feelings like fear and anxiety in the present.

Also, their findings support the idea that nostalgia has the capacity to generate positive affect, bolster social bonds, and increase positive self-regard. So, when a social situation is one that is apt to trigger anxiety or fear, nostalgia about relationships from the past can help boost confidence in one’s ability to interact, open up, and bond with others.

This may explain the link between loneliness and nostalgia because when we feel lonely or lost due to life events and transition, nostalgia helps us feel more connected. One can counteract feelings of isolation by remembering important relationships from the past and bringing them into the present. So, in the absence of nurturing, comforting, or balancing relationships, one may supplement with memories of such relationships from the past. Reminding one that they are capable of loving and being loved and that such relationships might be found again.

This information has pretty interesting implications for grievers who are apt to find themselves in all the above-mentioned scenarios – experiencing negative mood, life transition, and potential isolation. Provided that the griever had a good relationship with their deceased loved one, it seems logical that these are the memories they are most likely to long for in times of despair.

So, here I am scratching my head wondering why I still need my mother after all this time when in actuality time might be irrelevant. Theoretically, I’m primed to rely on memories involving her now as much as I will be 5 years from now. Now, of course, I remember my mother during happy times as well, but I am far more likely to call on memories of her during times of stress. This tendency has only pushed me further towards believing I need her and I can only heal a sad time with her happy memory so many times before the correlation is solidified that “if only she were here, I would be okay”.

I guess above all else this affirms the idea that it’s not abnormal to rely on loved ones even years after their death. Doing so doesn’t mean you are stuck or aren’t coping, quite the opposite because memories of them have in effect become a mechanism for coping. One could conceptualize this as yet another way we ‘Continue Bonds’ with our loved ones, by using memories of them to help us deal with real needs in the present.

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15 Comments on "Nostalgia and Yearning in Grief"

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  1. Keli Burfield  April 28, 2014 at 1:12 pm Reply

    This totally makes sense to me! We are moving in 8 weeks and getting ready to take our first load. I have a slight cold which always brings back memories and feelings of wanting my Mom. And then there’s trying to explain to my dad why we are moving which is enough to make me want to say, “Just put Mom on the phone.” And I can’t. Plus Mother’s Day is two weeks away. So memories of our move from Missouri to Florida when i was sixteen have come flooding back and everything just makes me think of Mom and how very, very, very much I miss her right now. So thank you; your posts help me understand how I am grieving and that it is okay. I do need Mom right now, and have to get by with what I’ve got even when it seems like it’s not near enough.

    • Eleanor  April 30, 2014 at 8:54 pm Reply

      Hey Keli,

      I’m glad the post made some sense to you. It sounds like your dealing with a ton of stress right now! I am the EXACTY same way, when I’m sick I always wish I were 8 again and my mother could take care of me. Booo. Good luck with your move and feel better.

      Eleanor

  2. Deatra Yatman  April 28, 2014 at 3:18 pm Reply

    This explanation was profound in its simplicity and reasoning. Thank you for such a useful explanation.

    • Eleanor  April 30, 2014 at 8:54 pm Reply

      You’re welcome! Thanks for reading.

  3. Nathalie Himmelrich  May 3, 2014 at 6:07 am Reply

    Well said, Eleanor.
    Personally I notice the two sides in me where my human self misses my daughter and my mother, yet my – what I would call – spiritual self knows the rightness in their no-longer-physical-presence in what we know as the human plane.
    Moving back and forth between, sometimes I experience those sides further apart and other times closer to each other. Acceptance therefore does have a more or less slider, not an on/off switch, at least in my experience.

  4. Dylan Witherby  April 29, 2015 at 3:09 am Reply

    I experience this everyday. I am just turned a new chapter being in still so young in my youth. All I feel is this every day about my daughter who was aborted and my grandmother and now my mother, except my mother hasn’t past away yet. I have this with her being alive. I have this experience about my whole childhood and teenage years.It’s recently became too overwhelming, but it’s exactly like you said. I feel heartache and I can’t live without them, I only had so little of them in my life that was so huge to me. I couldn’t take it back, I was given the best feelings from them and so many days I miss them. I miss them all the time I want to cry, but fear of being judged. My grandmother, because she died a horrible death of alzhiemer’s and abused and how many years I missed her. I felt so disconnected losing her the way I did, it’s coming back again. I feel if my mom is gone soon and my weird dreams constantly show up now since a month ago about my mom dying and I know I couldn’t handle it. I don’t know you if my heart can take so much of this.

    • Litsa  May 3, 2015 at 12:36 pm Reply

      Dylan, I am so sorry for all you are going through. We have a few other posts that may be helpful for you, or at the very least a reminder that you are not alone.

      This is a post on grieving after an abortion: https://www.whatsyourgrief.com/grief-abortion-healing-unspoken-loss/

      This is a post on grieving someone who is still alive. https://www.whatsyourgrief.com/ambiguous-grief-grieving-someone-who-is-still-alive/

      I am so sorry you feel judged expressing the pain of your loss. Have you considered a support group? Sometimes it can be easier to show our emotions around others who are also struggling with grief.

    • Karen  January 28, 2017 at 3:55 pm Reply

      Dylan: it is a good thing to talk to folks about what you are feeling, your fears and your losses. We become stronger for educating ourselves and sharing with others who have and are going through similar experiences. And YES we do get through it, and manage to cope in a number of healthy ways. Good luck to you.

  5. Andrea  August 2, 2016 at 10:28 pm Reply

    Reading your work helps me feel ‘typical’. Thank You

  6. Lourdes  April 30, 2017 at 9:41 pm Reply

    Thank you for your post. Very helpful

  7. Genevieve  February 10, 2018 at 7:01 am Reply

    I keep coming back reading this after 8 years. My mother passed in 09 and my life is flipped. I’m using nostalgic feelings as a band aid to help me. It’s to the point of obsession. I need to relive the happier times mentally. I’ve found collecting vintage items my mother cherished is helping. I should be better, but I have moments like now. I guess we all do. I choke up even thinking about it. Does it really ever get easier?

  8. sirguy.lives  March 19, 2018 at 12:52 am Reply

    This article has put my experience into full focus. I have remarked to some friends and family that I often feel like I’m time traveling. It’s a really strange sensation. When I first got the news my wife was terminal I had anticipatory grief attacks that would occur with any thought of the future. Now that she is gone not a day goes by that I am not transported to somewhere in our past. After reading this article it all makes sense now.

  9. Sylvia  April 25, 2018 at 8:57 pm Reply

    Yearning is the feeling I get everyday. I wish he could hold me in his arms. Talk to me. My regrets: I could have kissed and hugged him more. I should have spent more time with him. I knew that there was a time he had called some else. I felt hurt and put a brick in the wall. Several more times I was hurt and put up a wall. I was hurt and didn’t feel like I wanted to be around him. Now I want to hold him kiss him and love him like we were first became as one. I yearn for him, his beautiful cards, his understanding. I want to feel his arms around me. My grieving is now 7 months old and I feel worse everyday. I am seeing a doctor for medication. Some days I feel that I won’t be able to go on without him. My love is gone, now all I have is yearning, grief, and regrets.

  10. Wood  July 25, 2018 at 11:55 pm Reply

    Hi I lost my Mom, sister and my much loved dog over a few years but recently I sit at work and drift off thinking about the past and how much I want to be there. Its not only the people I miss but the sounds, smells and memories of those place albeit not all of them happy but compared to now they were happy times.
    Those loved human people the circumstances were tragic and I’m wondering if I can’t acknowledge their passing even tho a few years have gone by. Is it that I cannot face the future without them and I would give my entire being just to have them back for a day but then I couldn’t let them go again. Oh what a dilemma. I sometimes go to ask Mom something that only she can answer and I always want my sister here with me to just be with I guess

    Jo

  11. Vartan Agnerian  January 22, 2019 at 4:40 pm Reply

    Such clear description of all those emotions I’m going through daily’
    A recent widow’ after 44 years of a committed and contented and loving marriage’ every day I rewind the videos of my mind and I cry and weep in secret ‘ not to upset my sons and not to cause them worry’
    Thank you for this very supportive and understanding grief counselling outreach you have created’ every article is so educative and so caring’ …

    Laura

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