Why Looking at a Photo Can Ease Loneliness and Grief
Studying the photo now, I see not just that moment, but so many other joyous times I shared with my mother: horseback riding in Central Park, the raucous annual holiday parties she hosted. Those images and the feelings they bring—bliss, love, the sensation of being fully safe—have become more important to me with each passing year. A decade after the Paris photo was taken, my mother died of ovarian cancer. She didn't get to come to my wedding, and she never met my children. Memories are what I have left, and I relish them. They help me feel whole.
The Paris picture hasn't always made me happy, though. For a long time, I kept it tucked away in an album, a reminder of what I'd lost. But as I began taking out photos and talking to my children about their grandmother, I discovered that looking back was helpful. Finding ways to stay connected brought me peace.
Though the kind of longing I felt is nothing new—Homer and the Bible reference the concept—the word nostalgia once described a disease. In 1688, Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer coined the term to describe the persistent sadness and sometimes irregular heartbeats experienced by young people abroad. Their emotional and physical ailments, he wrote, were stirred by "continuous vibration of animal spirits through those fibers of the middle brain." Later, military physicians treating Swiss mercenaries, a group seen as particularly vulnerable to the ailment, theorized that it resulted from damage to their eardrums and brains from the incessant clanging of cowbells in the Alps.
Since then, nostalgia has been variously classified as a compulsive disorder and a form of depression, but these days it's simply defined as a sentimental longing for the past. And now researchers believe that being nostalgic may actually make us happier and healthier. According to a recent article in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, nostalgia may be a dynamic motivational force. Coauthor Constantine Sedikides, PhD, of the University of Southampton in England, a psychologist who has extensively researched the effects of nostalgia, says fond memories can generate feelings of engagement and self-esteem that leave us more optimistic, inspired, and creative. His research also suggests another upside that's especially important for the bereaved: Nostalgia may assuage loneliness. Now considered a social emotion like empathy, it can draw us closer to others—the idea being that when we feel an intense bond with loved ones from our past, we're more likely to feel similar bonds with those around us in the present.
This profound sense of connection can lead nostalgic individuals to believe life is more meaningful, Sedikides and others have found, which may ease the pain of grief. Henry Louis Gates Jr., PhD, the Harvard professor who created the genealogy show Finding Your Roots, told me nostalgia is a way of "testifying to our loved ones' continuing existence." When we understand its power, Gates says, we recognize that "they haven't passed on—they've passed into us."
Of course, we inherit more than just memories, and there's emerging evidence that giving a loved one's cherished possessions a new purpose may be another way nostalgia can help us heal. Researchers are studying people who lost family and friends on 9/11 and chose to donate objects in their memory to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum; the goal is to discover whether contributing precious relics—ID cards, phone messages, even shoes—made moving forward easier. So far, that seems to be the case, according to Brenda Cowan, associate professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology/SUNY, who launched the project. "For many, the opportunity to carefully sort through a beloved person's belongings—with the knowledge that those belongings will forever be in the hands of preservationists—left them feeling relieved and satisfied," she says. The nostalgic reverence attached to the objects affirms that the past is worth honoring and celebrating.
Kathy Rambo, whose son Jason died in a car crash at 19, says his possessions have helped her keep his memory alive. A year after the accident, Rambo began making teddy bears out of his jeans and shirts. When she completed 30 bears, she invited Jason's brother, sister, best friend, grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins over for an afternoon of sharing stories about him. When they left, each chose a teddy bear to take home. She found that sewing gave her uninterrupted time to think about Jason, and parting with his clothing in this way reassured her that he'd always be loved. "It helped me remember and look forward at the same time," Rambo says.
"Nostalgia is where the healing happens," explains Alan Pedersen, executive director of the Compassionate Friends, an organization that offers support to nearly one million bereaved parents, siblings, and grandparents across the United States. "We used to think it best to keep memories at bay because they were too painful. This is old thinking. We now say reminisce to the hilt."
Thirty years after that unforgettable mother-daughter trip, my husband and I took our kids to Paris. The first afternoon, we made a beeline to the Tuileries and found the fountain from my photo. My daughter and I bounded into place—mom on the left, daughter on the right. We would have gotten the identical shot, but I encouraged my husband and son to join us. In the moment that we posed for the friendly passerby who took our picture, I felt a rush of euphoria. We can all live our fullest lives when we accept that absence and presence can coexist. The new picture of my family is now framed on our piano alongside the old one of my mother and me. And I'm beaming in both.