[Exploring Life] Reminiscence is the process of recalling, retrieving, or reviving mental impressions of past experiences. When we reminisce we embark on an imaginative journey into the realm of the past in order to coax it into the present moment. When we journey into the terrain of our memories we build bridges that join the past to the present in order to try and make sense of something, resolve a problem we are experiencing, or perhaps to try and help us to decide what to do. The ways in which we relate our present circumstance to past experience changes over time because we are never in the same moment. Reminiscence is a vital component of optimal aging that helps us to stabilize ourselves in the confluence of life. In this sense, reminiscence is a core capacity in the pursuit of wisdom.
Winter is when nature turns inward and rests; it is the season of reminiscence. The retreat of nature under the embrace of the cold invites us to seek refuge in our own interiority. December ushers in a strange and mercurial cultural phenomenon known as the holiday season, in which we bear witness to the annual skirmish between religious faith, cultural ritual, and accelerated consumerism. However, we can also choose to embrace the holiday season as a time of belonging, relationship, and togetherness that inspires the warmth of gratitude. For some of us the holiday season may also a poignant period of time when the cold and piercing winds of absence chill our spirit. As much as the holiday season may invite joy, it may also serve to magnify feelings of loss and inspire reminiscence of loved ones that are no longer with us.
Although one hears about such cases, there seems to be relatively little written about the impact on grown-up children of losing both parents within a short space of time.
- Jean Turbidy in Losing Elderly Parents
A Remembrance: Three Years Ago
As the holiday season approached three years ago both of my parents were still alive. Even though they were in the midst of advanced age their presence remained enormous. Christmas was always a joyful time for my parents, and it always brought people together in their home in Sandy Cove Acres. These compelling memories of belonging imbued the physical infrastructure of their house and transformed it into a home. Suddenly, for the first time in their lives, the ravages of advanced aging had harshly expelled them from their home. Our family would never again gather around my parents as we once had. When I reminisce on my parents’ final few years of life, the loss of home remains a potent and deeply poignant remembrance.
Christmas was always a happy time; suddenly now it had become painfully sad. The starkness of this contrast made it hard to breathe. I had never experienced the depth of sorrow and loss as I had that Christmas day. My father, at age ninety, had entered the hospital the previous October for hip surgery and was now unable to walk. In addition, just days before Christmas, he had an unexpected heart attack, and it was now desperately clear he would never be able to live independently again. My mother had already lost her independence but received enough support in home to sustain her there, but now because of my father’s circumstances, she was forced to start her journey into the nursing home system. All the home support we had built over the years was suddenly completely inadequate. I recall taking mom to see dad in hospital that Christmas morning, and her frailty seemed pronounced. That Christmas my mother developed pneumonia, and my father was both exhausted and weary. Christmas was always wrapped neatly in the beauty of their home, and now all that had vanished.
Applefield explains, “memory and imagination sometimes dwell together… Memory pulled toward the known, and imagination sailed toward the unknown.” …It is not always clear how and why we come to review certain events over others, but there is always potential for memories to change how we look at life and for us, in turn, to overlay the memories with new meaning.
- Marc Agronin MD in How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old
The essence of this reminiscence is the creation of a bridge into the beauty and tragic loss of a home. Perhaps the sadness associated with the events surrounding the loss of their home desire continued conversation with me. My memory is drawn into this space, and each time I revisit I discover touching nuances and subtleties. Often, I try to imagine what it must have been like for my parents to lose their home against their desire; I can still hear my dad’s words, “I never thought it (end of life) would happen this way.” I hear the echo of their courageous voices speaking in my mind’s ear, and I feel the desperate looks of longing and desolation that inhabited their eyes. It does not seem right that many of us are forced to leave our homes in order to live out our final days. What is a home for if we cannot at least die in peace within the comfort of all the memoires that surround us there. Home is where we are understood; it is the sanctuary of identity, belonging, and love. I try to imagine how I might feel if this should happen to me, and angst immediately touches my heart.
A Remembrance: Two Years Ago
Two years ago this holiday season my mother was no longer with us. The loss of home was now brutally intensified by the agonizing absence of my mother. Grief was transforming my father. Though my father had remained courageous and stoic in the face of this incomprehensible loss, his health had now turned a corner was clearly starting to deteriorate at an accelerated rate. The sense of loss that overpowered him shattered his spirit and left him in ruins. My father had already lost his home, and now for the first time in nearly seventy-years he was without his wife for the holiday season. Another crucial part of his identity had already been amputated and buried.
I recall feeling extremely disoriented that holiday season; emotional vertigo became my constant companion. While the rest of the world seemed to celebrate Christmas as usual, we were all deeply immersed in feelings that were raw, bleak, and stringent. Dad no longer seemed to be himself in the absence of mom. Of course, we all put on courageous exteriors, and repeated the mantra that mom would have wanted us all to celebrate even in her absence, all while the agony of her loss wounded transfigured Christmas into a form of painful confinement that offered no respite. Christmas had become inhospitable, and uncomfortably hostile.
Loss and absence arrived hand in hand. The first holiday season without my mother ushered the true meaning of absence into our lives. My mother had passed through the threshold of death; we simultaneously passed through the threshold of absence. The loss of home experienced the previous year was now intimate with the absence of a beloved parent in the here and now. Dad passed away on January 7th, and I suspect he intentionally waited for the holidays to pass. The idea of “getting on with our lives” seemed ridiculously trite and vacuous. To what end are we getting on with our lives? We became mired in the breath-taking primal surge that was the loss of my parents. Now, there was no movement in life, no getting on – just what now must be.
It is painful and inhospitable emotional spaces such as these that we must learn to fully inhabit. This perhaps sounds counter-intuitive. I do not mean that we completely succumb to our grief and remain stuck in the pain of bereavement; I do mean that we should allow the pain and angst of the moment to transform our perspective. Loss and absence in life are inevitable and will always cause pain. If we do “get on” with life, we will get on with life with these new companions ever by our side, immediately to our left where we also find death. And of you glance at them, even for a moment, they immediately embrace us in reminiscence.
A Remembrance: Last Year
One year ago this holiday season both my parents were gone. The loss of home three years ago, exacerbated by the absence of my mother two years ago, is now exponentially intensified by their deaths. I could feel the mercurial approach of this unwelcome first holiday season without my mother and father, and it was foreboding and bleak. In their wake remained a festering wound that penetrated deep into the very soul of Christmas. A once happy and welcomed holiday, it had become transfigured by death into a source of unrelenting pain and anguish. The joy of Christmas now arrived with a hostile ferocity. The things we love the most also have the greatest potential to hurt us the most, but without love we sentence ourselves to an unlived life. In the midst of this holiday season I knew that something inside of me had been transfigured. I felt the tremendous burden of grief, but there was something else trying to hold a conversation with me.
This, of course, is the ultimate goal of reminiscence – not to restore what has been lost but to experience the gratitude that can only come with the realization that we never truly lose the gifts from the most important figures in our lives.
- Marc Agronin MD in How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old
With tears in my soul I would silently declare the incredible sense of gratitude for having my parents in my life as long as I did. I know that I am very fortunate in this aspect. Having my parents in my life as long as I did is nothing less than a gift. There is, however, a misguided notion that should be exposed; the knowledge that a person lived a long life does not make the experience of their death any easier to integrate. The bonds I forged with my parents occurred over a period of nearly fifty years. My life was defined in part by their presence in it. In their absence, part of my identity and purpose was taken away from me: “They are gone. Who am I and what should I do now?” The death of elderly parents is a source of intense spiritual trauma, and the beginning of a voyage into the deeper interior realm of authentic living.
The value and meaning we derive through reminiscence increases with age. This is not intended to support the ageist notion that we increasingly tend live in the past as we get older: it does mean that the ability of our past experiences to affect our present circumstance continually intensifies over time, especially as we become more intimate with the primal realities and fragile circumstances of what being alive really means. Reminiscence is not merely trying to remember something through bland rote retrieval; reminiscence is a deeply creative and imaginative capacity we engage in order to seek meaning and find purpose in life, quite often in the face of tragic and painful circumstances. It becomes a vital creative capacity for retrieving and re-imagining the essential and endearing relationships that provide companionship and prevent loneliness from overwhelming us.
When we lose our parents, or any loved one, we can choose to seek sanctuary in the healing energy of reminiscence. Holidays embrace the tension between what has been lost and what remains; this tension is the spiritual terrain of healing. Reminiscence is the space in which we transform grief, loss, and absence into a narrative of meaningful presence and remembrance in the here and now. To reminisce is to embrace the artist that lies within each one of us, and to author a new episode in the story of our lives. Within the confinement of our grief and bereavement, a distant voice will eventually emerge and begin to converse with us. Just as a powerful love opens the possible for terrible pain, if we learn to rest within the trauma of our grief, gratitude will subtly begin open us to new possibilities in life.