By Eleni Pinnow
When my sister died by suicide five years ago, I struggled to remember her. It wasn’t that I couldn’t remember her face or the way her glasses slid down her nose or her perfectly-formed curls. I struggled to remember her: The way she would dance and make up silly songs, her ability to engage with the people and places around her effortlessly, the comfort her presence gave me.
I struggled to remember the essence of Aletha — what made her my sister and an unforgettable part of my life.
Perhaps this was because, for more than a year and a half before her death, Aletha was depressed. The tone of her texts and emails changed. Her voice sounded flatter. She got annoyed or frustrated more quickly. Her focus shifted from going on a big trip in a few years to simply getting through the work week.
My sister’s death had the cruel consequence of locking that dark phantom of Aletha in my memory. I would tell people how funny my sister was and then I would struggle through an awkward silence trying to think of an example.
In the years following Aletha’s death, I would learn to navigate the complex intersection of grief, depression and memory.
In those first few months after her death, I remembered my sister’s depression much more than my sister herself. I felt like I had lost my sister twice. First when she died and again when the dark phantom of her depression overrode my memories of her.
Shortly after Aletha died, I wrote an article about how depression lied to her. I wrote that depression made her believe that she was worthless and a burden; mental illness had obscured her understanding of her own value and the depth of people’s love for her. Similarly, in the months that followed her death, grief lied to me and robbed me of my memories of the real Aletha.
One of the added horrors of grief is that, much like depression, it changes the way we are able to see the world. There’s a term for the way that moods influence our ability to recall certain memories: mood-congruent memory. When we’re sad, it’s easier to recall sad memories. When we’re happy, it’s easier to recall happy memories.
The phenomenon is stronger in people with depression. In the midst of a depressive episode, people struggle to ignore irrelevant negative stimuli. The cognitive pull toward negative thoughts is a self-perpetuating part of depression that makes “snapping out of it” all but impossible.
When coping with Aletha’s death, I tried harder and harder to ignore my sad memories, and I wracked my brain for happier memories. Each time, though, I couldn’t ignore the painful memories that centered around my sister’s depression and suicide.
Eventually, my memories came back — not flooding in one giant tsunami of happy reminiscences, but in a gentle trickle that was often prompted by a word or smell or sound. In the years after Aletha’s death, I would tell stories about her, and most of them reflected the happy and charming sister that I wanted to remember: The person she was for most of her life.
Grief never really ends, though. Much like the first months after Aletha’s death, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the accompanying stress and social isolation, made the dark memories much more readily accessible. I was fortunate to have undergone cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) both before and after my sister’s death, as it helped me develop tools to manage my depression and grief.
While the phenomenon of mood-congruent memory can maintain moods, “mood induction” is when someone attempts to recall certain memories in order to change their mood.
Most research studies involving mood induction involve people listening to happy or sad music or watching emotional film clips; mood induction can also occur through the repetition of phrases or through recalling treasured memories.
Before my sister passed, at the suggestion of a therapist, I developed a personal “mood toolkit” that helped me manage stress and negative moods. I leave bookmarks in funny passages of my favorite books. I have curated playlists of music that always raise my spirits. I know which episodes of my favorite shows are likely to result in belly laughs.
I’ve also learned few small changes to make when the need is more pressing: Sitting with a tall posture in stressful meetings, unclenching my jaw and hands during difficult conversations. These changes are not likely to reverse depression, but they’re enough to produce a mini mood boost when I need it.
In the last year of the pandemic, I’ve fallen back on these tools much like I did during the months following my sister’s death. Since my grief is not so fresh, they work much better now.
My memories of my sister often give me insight into my own mood. Hard, stressful days bring back the sad memories. Joyful days elicit happy memories. When the grief is strong or overwhelming, I return to my touchstone memories of joy.
Though it has been a very long five years since I last saw or spoke with Aletha, she is still a central part of who I am. She remains a source of comfort and happiness in my life. I keep a list of happy memories of my sister in my mind that still fill me with a warm glow.
In my memories, Aletha dances and laughs. She brags about her students. We share meals, and she teases me for my picky-eating tendencies. She listens to show tunes too loudly and drives too fast.
In short, I remember the sister I love so much — the sister who loved me unreservedly. I recall those bright memories like an incantation to ward off the darkness, and I bask in the light that was my sister.
Eleni Pinnow is a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. To make sure her sister is remembered for her love of teaching, she has started a scholarship fund in Aletha’s name at her alma mater. She urges those who may be contemplating suicide to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text “TALK” to 741741 or reach out to the Crisis Text Line (text “NAMI” to 741-741).
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