I’ve talked about intentionally forgetting for the last few weeks on social media and it’s resonating with you and upsetting a few people, too. The idea of releasing a memory stirs a lot of emotions that we may not be ready to express or experience. But rather than backing off the topic, we’re going to dig through it some more and uncover what you might gain from letting a few things go.
Remember, letting go is not the purpose of our grief work – so we can gentle release that overly simplified platitude – it’s not what I’m asking of you. The purpose of grief work: emotional and holistic integration – raising our energy into being, not doing.
The grief work in which we experience the greatest measurement of healing and integration is the work that leads us to being more fully ourselves. When we invite our true self to the surface, past the memories, the personality traits, the defense mechanisms, and the coping strategies, we encounter a being so ready to express themselves with compassion that our grief can feel “suddenly” less suffocating.
When we talk about grief work, we’re not talking about doing more to make sure you’re grieving correctly. Sometimes in our coaching conversations, we’ll discuss adding a practice or experiment to test some theories and see what habits we could benefit from cultivating. But for the most part, we are looking for new ways to experience our holistic selves with less pressure and criticism. We are finding ways to be more like ourselves.
This is why I tell every client to pace themselves in grief work. You are not just reeling from great loss; you are restructuring your sense of self, and doing the work of grieving isn’t about worksheets and retreats – although both are great in their own way. Doing the work of grieving is being fully present, no matter what emotions, thoughts, or feelings are present with you.
Many grief professionals would have you face your coping mechanisms and defense mechanisms first. There’s a difference between the two, but for the moment, let’s address why they’re necessary. If you’ve read my book, you’ll know that in the first chapter we unpack the value and gift of denial.
Grievers need denial and defense mechanisms to maintain a manicured emotional landscape for survival. Often the initial shock of grief and flurry of activity can push us into the emotional weeds of grieving. Defense mechanisms allow us to mentally navigate the emotional overflow and strategize for so-called “lawn care” when we are better equipped to handle the work.
Defense mechanisms are typically passive or unintentional responses to fear, shame, grief, anger, or embarrassment. We have time-tested habits of fence building to keep ourselves as even-keeled as possible and dismantling those mechanisms isn’t the source of our healing.
Forgetting as a byproduct of a defense mechanism is fine – we let things slip from our mind when they’re not important enough, when they’re part of the overwhelm causing our focus to wane, or when we simply can’t be bothered to hold the info at the front of our minds.
There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a natural human habit because we were never meant to be walking notepads. Letting things slip is a way of our mind saying, “Hey, you have enough on your plate for now!”
When we get into the conversation about intentionally forgetting vs. intentionally remembering, we recognize that it becomes a coping skill – intentionally forgetting is an active process where we introduce a number of methods to support our neural pathways as they reroute for healthier responses. So put more simply, forgetting on a purpose is a brilliant way for us to remember what really matters.
Coping mechanisms are the skills we’ve cultivated that serve us for survival. We need them, we use them frequently, and while some of them become so engrained they’re automatic, we typically have awareness of our behaviors and choices as a way to cope with the too-muchness of loss.
So let’s explore the coping mechanism of intentional forgetting so that you can evaluate for yourself if this is a skillset that you could benefit from in healing.
We know our brain is brilliant at arranging our memories for recall while also suppressing things that could be harmful long term. My own brain and experiences of trauma are no different – many trauma survivors have a lack of recall or memories to investigate. We’re not going to walk this path in today’s talk, but it’s important to bear in mind that the impact of trauma on the brain is a big reason why intentional, compassionate grief work is essential to our healing journeys.
When our brain is grieving, the rumination on what we could have done differently will often remain at the forefront of our thoughts. They swirl for so long that other thoughts become foggy and leave us feeling obsessed with our own grief. I became so annoyed with myself and my brain when I couldn’t slow down an idea or memory. It felt like I was under attack, unable to manage my own experiences or ideas.
Deciding to forget some details and experiences served significantly for my own healing. It’s not that I can’t recall the memories now, and I’ll do so as an example in a moment. It’s that I gave myself an out.
Remembering the situations around my mom’s final hospital stay before multiple hospice care facilities felt like I could control part of the uncontrollable outcome. I was searching for someone to blame, constantly screaming at medical professionals who seemed careless and indifferent. Every day, the memory of someone neglecting or harming my mom in her last days would swoop forward and derail my intentions. Some days, I would act and make phone calls. Some days, I would shutter myself in my room. Others, I pretended everything was fine and masked through my day until I could fall apart.
This was all over a missing bag of jewelry. My mom had the same small pouch for her jewelry for years, and after leaving the hospital for the final time, she mentioned that it was missing.
It was hard to know if she was remembering correctly or had just left it at home. When we called the hospital the first three times, no one claimed to have seen it or located it after she was moved.
I wish that even in my grief, I still could have trusted the hospital staff and let it alone.
But my fear of losing her manifested as an obsession in finding her jewelry bag and blaming her care providers for failing her. What I needed was not to find the jewelry; I needed to remember the jewelry in a new way.
Intentional forgetting has a lot of strategies connected to it, and I’ll link some great articles and resources about it in the show notes. For me, I started asking myself why I needed the jewelry bag returned. Because every time I thought about it, what followed was hours of trying to cognitively sort through the same mess of missing items, phone calls, inattentive physicians, failed medical interventions, neglectful hospice care facilities, socio-economic discrimination, broken family relationships, and so much more. All starting with the thought of a few inexpensive earrings. All of those thought pathways carved deeper and deeper each time a single thought of my mom’s jewelry came to mind.
For a while, I couldn’t look a photo of her where jewelry was visible – no joke – because I would immediately wonder if it was one of the pieces we’d recovered or if it was still missing…and the whole cycle would begin again. And this is common! This is not something that I experienced in isolation.
I tried a few strategies before finding one that helped. First, I decided a new way of remembering her through jewelry started with replacing the first thought of “her jewelry went missing” with “someone is enjoying her beautiful jewelry.”
Maybe that someone is a family member. Maybe it’s a stranger. Maybe it’s me, and my mom in all her medically induced confusion had the bag all along.
I don’t need a fact to resolve my questions. I needed clarity that felt a little more like control.
And for a while, that strategy helped but at the end of the day, it didn’t change how I was experiencing the memories, it just gave me something else to think about and it only lasted for so long.
Clarity and control are funny bedfellows – we think the first leads to the second, but that is a misunderstanding. In this, my control came from allowing myself to focus on the higher truth of what mattered to me as I grieved. And I knew it wasn’t jewelry. But pretending the jewelry was happier with someone else also didn’t matter to me, which is why that stopped working after a few tries.
So, my second strategy was to force myself to forgive everyone involved. The memories would swirl and I would pray about forgiving the doctors, the staff, the family members, the strangers. I thought I would will myself into healing by trying to release the obvious grudges and the hatred I was curating. And that obviously, did not work either. It just made me angry. It made me feel a great sense of unfairness and injustice that I needed to forgive someone else or maybe even an imaginary someone else so that I could heal first.
When that didn’t work, I turned to a version of meditation.
When the memory came up, I would visualize a container for the memories, and place them one by one inside. I would then picture that container in a safe place, and I give myself permission to return to it when I wanted to instead of capitulating when the memory popped up and demanded attention.
You know when you return to an old familiar place and find some keepsake you’d forgotten? It’s not something you necessarily want to throw out, but you also aren’t scrambling to find room in your suitcase to take it home again. This is a little bit like that. It’s a “back of the closet” box you can open when you want to and someday, decide to dispose of if you’d like.
The more I practiced putting the memory back into the container, the more easily I could focus on the experience and emotion within the memories instead of the event itself. Our big emotions are always connected to relationships – and in this case, all my unmet emotions from losing my mom were demanding attention.
For the next few months, when any thought connected to her jewelry, hospital stay, hospice experience, or even my last goodbye came along, I noticed which emotion came along with it. Instead of allowing the emotion to flood my body, I acknowledged that “sadness or anger” was present with me.
Those thoughts of a secondary loss of her belongings were visceral because it was part of my loss of her. My body carried the tightness of balled-up fists and ready-to-spew vitriol with each memory, and I was done bearing the weight.
Whatever the emotion, I could visualize it changing shape, color, or texture before me. As I extended my heart of compassion toward it, the emotions became less threatening.
I noticed my thoughts softening as well. Insteadof remembering what wrong might have been done, I remembered the way I felt so much lighter after releasing my responsibility toward the memory.
Her jewelry was not my responsibility. Nothing about it would restore my loss or make things right. My responsibility was to myself and my future self. To the people I would continue to see every day and teach to love through loss. To the person I wanted to keep in my mind as my mom.
We tend to wear “rose colored glasses” when we consider the people we’ve lost and it’s okay to do that. Part of intentionally forgetting is allowing ourselves to reflect on what mattered and what was healing before the loss ever happened. We know people are complicated, some harmful, some not capable of apologizing or making things right before they go. How we choose to keep them in our minds is up to us, and intentionally forgetting is one way of reclaiming ourselves from that person, too.
I want to take a few more minutes here to talk about funerals, wakes, and celebrations of life.There are some incredible practices culturally around the world, and if you’ve never made time to learn about them, I hope you will. Amanda Held Opelt is a beautiful author and sister of the late Rachel Held Evans, who died suddenly in 2019. In Opelt’s recent book, A Hole in the World, she explores rituals of grief from around the world and it’s a beautiful way to learn and remember what we already hold as valuable.
What I gained from this work was the value of my own that includes not attending funerals.
When my mom died, I’d attended plenty of life celebrations and funerals, but she didn’t want one. My grandfather who died shortly before her hadn’t wanted one either. Mymom went so far as to even ask us not to announce her death in the local paper or online.
I struggled a lot with this. I thought I wanted the comfort of others, of people who knew her. I wanted to hear their stories. Although my mom was a very private person and had her own reasons of asking for this, I also suspect that she wanted us to pursue healing in a way that eliminated these final memories of her life through her death.
Her experience with chemotherapy was violent and harsh; a complete opposite of the beautiful, active, and funny woman she was every day.
As I reflect on the way we chose to honor her memory and spread her ashes, I realize her wish for no funeral was a gift.
She chose a better memory for us. She allowed us the space to carve our own thoughts to remember, to carry a part of what we wanted to heal with and to protect our grief from the hundreds of people who wanted a piece of her or her story.
The last funeral I attended was for a precious friend and leader from my college days. The event was somber and heavy; we saw old friends and shared stories, and it was lovely to reconnect. But the memories of my friend and leader are all now connected to the day of his death and the way he was eulogized.
Could I use the process of intentionally forgetting to retrain those pathways? Of course.
But I could also recognize that my intentionally forgetting starts with intentionally choosing the way we interact with others in the here and now as well – myself included.
We choose the memories we carry with us. We carry them in every part of our being – mind, heart, body, and spirit. And sometimes allowing ourselves to forget to pick up the heaviest burdens is a gift we give ourselves – one that does not diminish the reality of what happened or who mattered. It simply honors how much we matter and our reality as just as valuable right here and now.
Thank you for listening to episode 106 of Restorative Grief. Forgetting isn’t a different way of forgiving someone. That is an entirely different conversation. Intentionally forgetting allows us to choose what we find meaningful in healing, and that choice makes all the difference. This is an invitation to reclaim your autonomy over grief and how life shakes out around you. You are the one at the wheel. Choose where you’ll steer your ship.
If this is your first time listening to Restorative Grief, I hope you can recognize that you too have the autonomy and authority to guide your own story. Your experiences of grief are unique to you, and until you invite yourself to explore, you’ll never know what kind of healing you carry.
One way to learn more about your own grief story is to consider one-on-one grief coaching with me, or by joining the Patreon and using our episode workbook to work through the conversations with a more self-reflective stance. Check out the show notes for links to all that and more, and consider leaving a review on Apple or Spotify! Please be sure to subscribe to the show and share us with a friend or even reach out on social media, because I love meeting with new people!
And as always, one last thing. Please remember the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for you listening. I’ll see you next week.
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