Nostalgia and Yearning in Grief

“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 are 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 a 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 ones 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 supplements 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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April 12, 2017

10 responses on "Nostalgia and Yearning in Grief"

  1. Thank you for your post. Very helpful

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

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

  6. 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.

    • 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.


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