The Place For Nostalgia in Grief

March 6, 2022

By Ken Barringer

I recently read an article in the Boston Globe titled Why Does Parenthood Make Us Nostalgic?

It got me thinking: Does a term that was once defined as a “bittersweet yearning for the past” have a role in the grief process? Certainly, we can make a case for it given that definition, but it seems rare that we connect nostalgia to how we might manage grief. If you have spent any time on Twitter or Instagram there are literally hundreds of posts waxing nostalgic; “baseball in the 70s”, “dirty old Boston”, “80s forever” to name a few. Nostalgia is present and alive. How do we feel about it? 

A fear many have connected to nostalgia is getting “stuck” in it and it could become a problem (“he is nostalgic and reminiscing all the time”).  Could we shift the concept of nostalgia from being a problem (is it really?) to being a strength? Whatever we decide the truth is, the opposite might also be true. Ideally, we learn from the past and can have affection for it. Our past helps us feel connected and therein lies an opportunity to take the past with us.  This is a little like grief; not how to move on but to carry with us in a different, more adaptive way. How many tributes and memorialization’s have you witnessed or heard about? These efforts are dedications to the past. Of course, as caring people we need to be mindful of those who do get stuck in nostalgia and their desire for the way things were might require professional attention as it could be a sign of depression not nostalgia.

Let’s look at anniversary dates, birthdates, Fathers/Mother’s Day. These dates are lightning rods for a nostalgic frame of mind. Why wouldn’t they? However, there was a previous believe that nostalgia was harmful and thus should be avoided - the word is a combination of the Greek word “nostos “ (return, home) and “algos” (pain) - perhaps it’s time to think of it differently. We know that when we acknowledge pain it aids in helping us avoid suffering. And perhaps our “return” can be beneficial in helping to feel more grounded. We need to connect with the past – regardless of what the past was – to learn and grown with and from it.

In talking with a client recently we were trying a identify a feeling she was having. She talked of “the Sunday Blues”. Sundays were a solitary time for her, a shut- down day where she would unwind from the week to wind up for the coming week. She said she often thought of those no longer with her or just sweet moments from her past.   After ruling out sadness and depression we arrived at nostalgia. There are negative connotations to sadness (even though it’s a positive, active emotion) and depression therefore we try and avoid them, or people try and talk us out of them, (“ya, but you have….”, or “there’s nothing to be depressed about”). I think of nostalgia as perhaps the positive speaking sibling to sadness and depression. We can harken back to a time gone by with fondness. Maybe we can think of nostalgia as a gate way to working through the grief. Perhaps it will allow us to feel more connected and thus in a better space. If a goal of grief support is to develop a greater sense of hope and optimism going forward, then conceivably there is a place for nostalgia in grief.