Dealing with Painful Memories of a Loved One

Losing a loved one was awful enough. But when you least expect it, you may recall painful memories — an odd experience, an argument, hurtful words best forgotten. You wish the painful memories would go away and leave you alone. Still, they they keep reappearing, and nagging at you.

I have some understanding of your feelings. My elder daughter made some poor decisions in her teens, decisions that hurt her and the family. Thankfully, she found the courage to earn an engineering degree, an MBA, industry certifications, and had a promising job. Then my daughter died.

Proud as I am of her accomplishments, some memories of my daughter are vivid and troubling. According to “Dealing with Painful Memories,” posted on the Family Recovery & Life Guidance Resources website, memories fall into two main groups–traumatic and nagging. Traumatic memories result from an acutely stressful event, the article explains. Nagging memories resurface “when we have trouble reconciling an experience with our ideas . . .”

My daughter died from the injuries she received in a car crash. Surgeons operated on her for 20 hours, but were unable to save her life. As the lead surgeon explained, the team would fix one problem, and something else would fail. After surgeons determined she as brain dead, my husband and I signed off on all life support. The cause of death was listed as blunt force trauma. Stopping life support is one of the most painful memories of my life.

Time has taught he how to cope with painful memories. The tactics I use may help you handle painful memories of your deceased loved one. One of the first things you can do is face your memories. To counter a painful memory I think of a happy one. Therapist Martha Beck, in her book Finding Your Own North Star, says, “Even as real grief breaks your heart, something in you knows that you’re being broken open, and there is something profoundly hopeful at the core of that sensation.” I have found this to be true.

Diverting your mind is another coping tactic. Rather than dwelling on a painful memory, do something you enjoy. Pick up your knitting project, go for a bird walk, have lunch with a friend, play a round of golf, read a book, or attend an art exhibit. A short break can lift your spirits immensely.

Creating Action Memorials is another idea. Therese A. Rando, author of How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies, says we can identify with positive aspects of the deceased’s personality. Four of my family members died in 2007. Each family member had positive characteristics. For example, my brother loved books. In his memory, I donate books to the public library. I call this an Action Memorial, and have created other Action Memorials in memory of my loved ones.

You may also think of memories as a bridge. Earl A. Grollman, in his book Living When a Loved One Has Died, describes memories as a bridge to the future. “The past travels with us and what it has been makes us who we are,” he writes. Painful memories and happy memories have things to teach us. What we learn can serve as girders of our bridges to the days ahead. If we let them, memories make us stronger, strong enough to help others who are bereaved.


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


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  • Jenine Boisits (Lindberg) says:

    I lost my husband Paul to liver cancer and while it was very painful to watch this tough former Marine slowly succumb to the disease, our relationship had been rocky due to years of his alcoholism. At times he truly was a mean drunk but when sober, he was a sweet, loving and generous man. Bless his soul, though, he worked hard to stay sober and he finally did “get it” finding some peace while still alive. Eventually I was able to finally say goodbye to Paul in my heart. It needed to be a true and loving goodbye after he passed before I could move on with my life.
    I took a chance and fell in love again a few years later and was very happy with the decision I made to keep going on. Pete was everything I wanted in a man and more. He definitely wasn’t perfect but neither was I. But not long into our relationship, maybe three years later after meeting Pete, he was diagnosed with throat and lung cancer. He died only three years later even though he fought off the throat and lung cancer.
    Each time he defeated the lung cancer or the throat cancer, he was met with another diagnoses fiercer and stronger than the prior. Yet, I discovered through this long and horrific ordeal what a stoic and selfless man he really was.
    We battled everything together in addition to also struggling for the basic needs of life. He couldn’t beat the cancer because it kept coming back–brain, bone and stomach cancer finally took his life.
    As sick as he was and with the help of his best friend, he arranged his own funeral. Through it all, we remained the two inseparable best friends we were always meant to be. For now, I struggle every day to get through life without him and I work hard to find some good that needs to come from these experiences.
    I know I will figure that out one day but for now, I need to grieve and to heal and hopefully find some peace in my life again.