When Joys Mix with Sorrows

Article excerpt

I grew up having Sunday dinners with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and the rest of our family where we heard stories from the past, ate memory-laden foods and listened to my grandparents, my mother and others harmonizing to songs from the '20s, '30s and '40s. As a teenager with a then-novel small cassette tape recorder, I got it all on tape.

Following the passing of my grandfather, who had been married to my grandmother for almost 68 years, I worried about how Grandmother would get along. She did well, and at Sunday dinners loved to hear the tapes of when she was singing with my grandfather. She. would cry and laugh and sigh and get on with her life. Then, after my grandmother's funeral, our family ate her Norwegian version of "Chinese hot dish" and white "monkey hair cake" while listening to tapes of both my grandparents singing their old songs. We cried and laughed and went on with our lives.

That's when I first learned the potential healing power of reminiscence and life review, which I incorporated into my practice as a psychotherapist, teacher and author for over 20 years. I later learned the ways in which these joys may also turn to sorrow or other startling outcomes.


Suddenly widowed in her late 50s, Loretta went on to build the country home she and her husband had dreamed about. Once completed, the home seemed empty and her fantasy that the new home would bring her late husband back in some way was unfulfilled. She would play their old songs, cry, drink, take tranquilizers and cry even more. As Loretta sank into a psychotic depression, her delusions grew more vivid and she accused her neighbors of repeated travesties. Further isolation drove her deeper into a depression that could only be treated with electroshock therapy.

Loretta's obsessive reminiscence was a symptom of unresolved grief and her eventual depression. Family members and professionals working with her did not realize that this type of reminiscence was symptomatic of what eventually became serious and life-threatening mental illness. Later, while Loretta was being treated for depression, she participated in group therapy, which used reminiscence and music. At many sessions, she played a record of the song "Are You Lonesome Tonight." Instead of being alone and isolated, she was sharing her feelings with a group of other people her own age. Slowly she became able to work through her grief, cherish the fond memories and move on with her life.

In the same group, Loretta met Al. He had been an alcoholic all of his adult life. At age 67, he started treatment that included the reminiscence group. The group did a time-line exercise, which, starting with participants' earliest memories, identified significant milestones or markers in their lives. When faced with this exercise, Al was overwhelmed and sobbed uncontrollably. Without alcohol to mask his emotions, he was now confronted with decades of sorrow he acknowledged was largely brought on by his regrets. As his children grew up he had not been there for them, his wife divorced him, and the rest of his family gave up on him. Without the support of the treatment program and the incorporation of these issues and feelings into his 12-step and other work, Al likely would have begun drinking again or quite possibly committed suicide. …