Surviving Your Loss by Looking to Your Past
For so many individuals and families across the globe who have lost loved ones to the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been a time steeped in tragedy and pain. During this time, many of us have lost loved ones due to other tragedies, as well. Our family suffered the loss of Stephen’s mother to cancer.
We know too well that nothing can replace the presence of loved ones in our lives or entirely relieve the pain of their loss. Nevertheless, we personally find some comfort in reflecting on the life of Stephen’s mother, our memories with her, and the positive impact she had on us. Research we conducted along with our collaborators, published just months before our loss, suggests that those of us who engage in this sort of nostalgic reverie may benefit from reductions in some of the negative symptoms that tend to accompany our loss and grief.
Nostalgia is a sentimental longing for treasured moments in our pasts, and the moments for which we are nostalgic tend to be ones that involve ourselves in relation to our close others, particularly at momentous occasions. We might reflect back on our wedding days, holiday gatherings with our families, great vacations—whatever moments are valuable to us personally.
Nostalgia is a Good Thing
Historically, scholars incorrectly viewed nostalgia as a disorder that would harm our health and well-being. Engaging in nostalgic reverie would make us feel sad and lonely and cause alarming physical symptoms, they thought.
However, historical scholars actually had it backwards: rather than nostalgia bringing about sadness and loneliness, uncomfortable states (like sadness and loneliness) tend to bring about nostalgia. Feeling lonely might lead us to reminisce about some of the treasured moments we shared with our loved ones, and reflecting on those moments then helps us feel less lonely. In this way, nostalgia serves a restorative function and can be quite healthy. In fact, people who experience nostalgia more frequently tend to experience psychological benefits including feeling more accepted, supported, inspired, and optimistic. They also tend to experience more positive emotion and feel that their lives are more meaningful.
Can nostalgia benefit a person even when facing the loss of a loved one to death? In our research, undergraduate students who had lost a loved one within the past two years reported their frequency and personal value of nostalgic engagement as well as their level of distress including intrusive thoughts, irritability and physical symptoms across a one-month period.
Nostalgia helped by reducing distress across time without encouraging what are called “escapist strategies” (like trying to avoid reminders of their loss). More nostalgic people reported fewer intrusive thoughts over time, but less nostalgic people did not experience a similar benefit.
We also examined irritability and physical reactions to the loss, such as trouble sleeping and a pounding heart, and found that these, too, declined over time among more nostalgic people who were suffering from more intense grief. People who were suffering from more intense grief who were less nostalgic did not experience a similar benefit. In fact, their symptoms worsened over time.
Nostalgia offers a more positive and constructive way of connecting with our pasts. Rather than ruminating on negative emotions and experiences, we may reflect on treasured, even triumphant moments, moments of love and joy.
We simply asked about nostalgia among our participants, but a great deal of research shows that a variety of methods—such as scents, narratives, and music—can induce nostalgia as well. For us, Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” will always remind us of Stephen dancing with his mother at our wedding. Paying attention to the present and looking toward the future are important, but it is also healthy to bring out those photo albums or play those records once in a while.
For Further Reading:
Reid, C. A., Green, J. D., Short, S. D., Willis, K. D., Moloney, J. M., Collison, E. A., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., & Gramling, S. (2020). The past as a resource for the bereaved: Nostalgia predicts declines in distress. Cognition and Emotion, 35(2), 256-268. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2020.1825339
Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., Routledge, C., Arndt, J., Hepper, E. G., & Zhou, X. (2015). To nostalgize: Mixing memory with affect and desire. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 51, 189-273. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.aesp.2014.10.001
Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: Content, triggers, functions. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 91(5), 975-993. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.115
Chelsea Reid is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the College of Charleston. She studies the self and interpersonal relationships, with focuses on nostalgia and attitude agreements between partners.
Stephen Short is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the College of Charleston with expertise in advanced statistical techniques and research interests in predictors of attitudes toward science.