There are neurobiological reasons why memories and grief are inexorably connected. It has nothing to do with being crazy, lost, or incapable of closure. It is all about how we encode memories we value.
A couple of weeks ago Terry Gross (Fresh Air Podcast) remembered Poet W.S. Merwin who died March 15. Merwin was the poet laureate of the United States in 2010 and won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2005. Merwin also won the Pulitzer Prize twice in 1971 and 2009. The podcast was from 2008.
I had this podcast playing in my ear as I was making dinner or cleaning waxy buildup off the kitchen floor. You know the usual meaningful life events of the old, broken, and widowed do. I stopped what I was doing when I heard this exchange:
GROSS: And the photograph is marred, and you only have what you remember. You know, memory is always such an issue for me. You know, do you struggle to chronicle your life, to keep the photographs, to document it, to keep journals, to hold onto all the memories? Or do you accept that you have only what you remember?
MERWIN: I think we do both. I think we always do both. I think memory is essential to what we are. If we - we wouldn't be able to talk to each other without memory. And what we think of as the present really is the past. It is made out of the past. The present is an absolutely transparent moment that only great saints ever see occasionally.
This exchange between Gross and Merwin had me reconsider my relationship and understanding of memories. Merwin is correct, my memories of Donna and us is essential to who I am now. During our life together memories of my life before and with Donna shaped the present. Those memories after Donna's death were integrated into my consciousness to create new behaviors and knowledge.
I was raised to be neat and tidy and spic and span. That was the baseline of my world when I met Donna. Over time with Donna I became painfully aware of centering things, color (still not good), selecting clothes which remains fear inducing. I pulled from my past (how I was raised) into our present (life with Donna) to create a new and better behavior which became a memory. My memories have shaped my today. I have linked to the transcript. Give it a read.
Vice had an article "Instagram and Snapchat Are Ruining Our Memories" written by Eda Yu. Okay let me dive into this a bit and see how it fits with the memory discussion between Merwin and Gross.
Yu writes that creating a memory is all about perception. Our minds capture a visual, sound, smell or tactile moment and those physical moments travel to the hippocampus where it is determined if that perception (aka memory) ends up as a long-term memory. Yu referenced a detailed scientific article "Making Lasting Memories: Remembering the Significant" by James L. McGaugh. In his work he identifies that when one is excited (arousal) during an experience (think of your wedding photograph or holding your first born) your amygdala releases stress hormones thereby making it more likely for that experience to encoded as long-term memories. Yu continues in her piece to show how with digital technology like IG or Snap stories and our focus being on social media not on the moment we end up loosing an emotional long-term memory because the arousal of the experience is focused on the social media moment not on the moment. Any chance to create a chronical of memories and those memories occupying an emotionally powerful place in our brains is diminished. Or to quote Yu …"have a story to tell later." We won't because of SM.
The scientific paper by McGaugh "Making lasting memories: Remembering the significant" Is a far more complex and long discussion. For now I will grab key point or two and tie it our grief world.
The opening sentence of the abstract: "Although forgetting is the common fate of most of our experiences, much evidence indicates that emotional arousal enhances the storage of memories, thus serving to create, selectively, lasting memories of our more important experiences."
Continued in the abstract: "The findings of both animal and human studies provide compelling evidence that stress-induced activation of the amygdala and its interactions with other brain regions involved in processing memory play a critical role in ensuring that emotionally significant experiences are well-remembered."
McGaugh goes on to present how many moments of our lives are not equal to other moments or remembered equally. While there are moments we remember forever.
Experiences that we attend to are, of course, more likely to be remembered. Some new experiences become lasting, because they fit well with and can be readily processed and integrated with existing memories.
This is a dense neurobiological paper that I have read and reread and need to read again. My one lasting take away is this. When someone tells me or hints to me that I need to find closure or move on from my grief I realize it is not because they are idiots it’s because of the power residing in the emotional context of Donna's death and her place in my life that I retain the memory. And that is what it is a memory not an anchor sinking me or holding me aground. Just a memory that has meaning.
Read McGaugh's paper. And like me more than once.