Memory Overload in Grief

When Memories of The Dead Overload Our Circuits

Grief expert Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC recently listed the signs of what disbelief or denial looks like in individuals who have suffered the death of a loved one. She carefully outlines when such a state may become unhealthy to the point of interfering with normal, daily functioning.

She explains this state of denial from a neurological point of view:

Image representing denial  [Courtesy of Marty Tousley's Grief Healing Blog]
Tips For Coping With Disbelief and Denial and Grief [Courtesy of Marty Tousley’s Grief Healing Blog]

“Understand that denial serves a normal function, especially in the beginning. It is your mind’s way of protecting you from more pain. Besides, your brain doesn’t “get it” because it is loaded with memories of your loved one. Although the person has died, the one you love continues to exist in your memory and in the memory of others.”


Marty Tousley instantly had my attention.  She talks about our brains  becoming “loaded with memories of [our] loved one. Of course. There is so much unloading of visual memory in the aftermath of grief that there is very little relief from these melancholic movies of happier days. They play endlessly in the heads of the bereaved. But it is the ban on off-loading these endless memories to family members and friends that becomes even more unbearable in the months to come.

Family and friends will gradually try and steer clear of the Death Conversation Loop — that is, the conversation with a grieving mother, let’s say, who feels compelled to bring up the subject of her deceased child while always referring to the child in present tense.

What actually is happening here? A mother is bravely, vainly trying to keep precious memories alive without going stark raving mad. If she stops talking about her child, their lifeblood will become erased from public memory. The idea of erasure is terrifying to her. She can feel a yawning gulf forming between herself and confidantes.  More and more often, they are putting  gentle pressure on her to clam up and “talk about something positive for a change.”  And these are the people who say they love her and would do anything for her!

Her best option is to see a therapist – and bravo if she does. Except when she returns home and wants to share insights from therapy, what happens? Those same confidantes will ask politely, cautiously, for her insights. When they ask for “a break,” this will tear her apart. Her mind will explode if she can’t talk about her dead child.

A place to “save” memories outside of our brains

This is where my healing work with personal photographs comes into play. If I can integrate this mother’s favorite memories of her deceased child — that is, all the visual memories overwhelming her mental circuitry because they are not being processed in conversations with the people who say they love her — this assuages her greatest fear. The fear of erasure.

The off-loading can now occur in the conversation between myself (the legacy artist) and the grieving mother. To create The Healing Dreamscape (a meaning-laden photomontage), we are likely to talk through each of the memories jostling for attention, and decide jointly which are iconic and which are less so. The memories we ultimately choose for the child’s legacy portrait are then integrated into a single picture; a royal portrait of sorts, which captures their essence at a glance.

Like a gentle fade to black at the end of a movie, the mother’s memories of her child now inhabit a remembrance portrait instead of her weary mind.  On display, the portrait itself begins to initiate conversations about the Child That Was. The mother’s eyes now exude dignity and nobility, not hysteria.The confidantes slowly build their courage; the legacy portrait helps them find the right words.

The end of a child’s life leads into the legacy of their life.