Handling the Most Haunting Memories

On a February weekend in 2007, my elder daughter and father-in-law died. Their causes of death were very different. My father-in-law was 98 1/2 years old and had been dwindling for months. His death was anticipated and I had made peace with it. But my daughter’s death from blunt force trauma in a car crash was the worst shock of my life.

Surgeons operated on her for 20 hours and could not save her. My daughter was also brain dead. Signing the legal papers to stop life support was an agonizing decision — the stuff of bad memories. Indeed, it has been a haunting memory. You may be grappling with bad memories as well. Daniel J. De Noon focuses on them in a WebMD article, “Why Memories Haunt Us.”

“There are some things — perhaps many things — each of us would just as soon forget,” he writes. He cites a study by two University of North Carolina psychologists, B. Keith Payne, PhD and Elizabeth Corrigan. Their study involved 218 college students. Students looked at two sets of pictures, one of emotionally stirring things, and the other emotionally neutral. Half of the students were asked to forget the first set of pictures and remember the second.

The remaining students were asked to remember both sets. Then, despite the instructions they had received, both groups were asked to forget the first set of pictures and recall the second. Students were good at forgetting the neutral pictures, but did not forget the emotionally stirring ones, whether pleasant or unpleasant. “It’s hard to isolate emotionally charged memories from other memories,” De Noon explains.

Marc Lerner writes about bad memories in his article, “How to Deal with Bad Memories,” published on the Life Skills Approach website. He thinks humans have the ability to recondition their minds about these memories and focus on the positive self. Once we have acquired this skill, we can view our memories from a new and positive perspective. “You may not be able to change the events of your past, but you can change your interpretations in the moment,” notes Lerner.

How can you handle your bad memories? You can focus on your postive self, a skill that takes practice, and worth acquiring. You can also learn from painful memories. I never thought I would find comfort in my daughter’s decision to become an organ donor, but I have. Thanks to her, two people are alive and two others can see.

Third, you can make something good from painful memories. Losing four family members within nine months changed my writing career. Today, I am writing about loss, grief, raising grandchildren, and creating a new life. Bad memories can lead us in new directions. Our memories help to define who we are and who we hope to be.

Copyright 2009 by Harriet Hodgson

Harriet Hodgson

More Articles Written by Harriet

Harriet Hodgson has been a freelancer for 38 years, is the author of 36 books, and thousands of print/Internet articles. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Minnesota Coalition for Grief Education and Support, and Grief Coalition of Southeastern Minnesota. In 2007 four of her family members died—her daughter (mother of her twin grandchildren), father-in-law, brother (and only sibling), and the twins’ father. Multiple losses shifted the focus of Hodgson’s work from general health to grief resolution and recovery, and she is the author of eight grief resources. Hodgson has appeared on more than 185 radio talk shows, including CBS Radio, dozens of blog talk radio programs, and dozens of television stations, including CNN. In addition to writing for Open to Hope, Hodgson is a contributing writer for The Grief Toolbox website, and The Caregiver Space website. A popular speaker, she has given presentations at public health, Alzheimer’s, hospice, grief, and caregiving conferences. Hodgson’s work is cited in Who’s Who of American Women, World Who’s Who of Women, Contemporary Authors, and other directories. For more information about this busy wife, grandmother, author and family caregiver, please visit www.harriethodgson.com.

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  • Shirley D. says:

    perhaps in time I will be able to condition my mind. Traumatic and tragic deaths are difficult to look at in a positive way. The way I get through this, the transition that will come to me, in time, will make me a different person all together. but seeing the event as a positive, I doubt that. allowing the event to transform into something better, I ‘ll buy that.

    Shirley

    • Dear Shirley,

      Thank you for reading my article. Please understand that I am not saying traumatic loss is positive in any way. What I am saying, thanks to Judy Tatelbaum’s wonderful book, “The Courage to Grieve,” is that humans have the ability to create something good from their grief experiences. Some people establish non-profit foundations. Some create beautiful architecture, such as the Taj Mahal. Some, like Robert Frost, write moving poetry. There is more living to be done and I’ve chosen to write grief resources and savor every moment with my husband and grandchildren.

      With caring, Harriet