Forget the Past? by Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD

Friday, 03 Apr 2015 22:03

Covered ginger jar, China, c. 1895



Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. — Soren Kierkegaard, 1843

Do thoughts of the past make you unhappy? Are you grieving? “Forget the past. You live now and into the future.” This is still the common-sense, persistent advice from the American public, the voice of the people. Many say the remedy for such unhappiness is simply to forget about it, live for today and – maybe – tomorrow. This remains conventional wisdom, the consensus opinion, the general agreement for an acceptable resolution. The people shall judge. Are the people of The Public right? Does “forget about it” solve the problems of past unhappiness and grief?

Forget the past. Such a curiously vehement, urgent order. Imagine living only in the present and into the future. Gone is childhood. Gone are youthful love and hate, joy and sorrow, laughter and tears. Gone is the spice that makes life rich, exciting, and meaningful. The sage voices of yesterday are silenced, suppressed. The advice to forget is intended as a loving kindness to us when we grieve. Forget about grief and the past. Move on, get over it. The past is past, dead and gone. Forget it.

This is an open expression of the advisor’s worldview, driven by impatience and the ubiquitous fear of death and self-awareness. In this view, death terror must be hidden and insight has no positive value. In fact, insight is seen as harmful, something to avoid and deny. Forget about it! Pursue happiness instead! According to this advisor, happiness excludes insight, the power of grasping the true nature of life and Self. This attitude lacks mature sympathy.

Furthermore, “forget the past” is an impossible imperative, however kindly it is meant. We cannot live as though the past had not happened. Our grief is one full measure of love given and/or received. To forget is also to deny this love. Forgetting would then become offensive. Why would that be desirable? It wouldn’t. Those who grieve are momentarily hypersensitized by loss and usually understand this. With such understanding, the mourner recognizes a profound absence of empathy on the part of supposed supporters. He feels misunderstood, reduced to silence, and abandoned. The supporter is exposed as emotionally bankrupt and asks the same from the mourner.

“Forget the past” is an authoritative instruction filled with fear, falsehood, and deliberately missed opportunity. (In this context, the directive often means “shut up.”) Such artificially induced forgetting is not genuine forgetting at all – not an inability to recollect. It is more like a conscious, deliberate withholding caused by self-defense and by mistrust or surrender to the supporter. It is ephemeral and provides no healthy returns for the mourner.

Now we see the past from another side. Our unique individual identity as biopsychosocial beings is a product of our whole lives: past, present, and hopes and plans for the future. The past is an undeniable part of this equation. It cannot be denied in the aftermath of a loved one’s death and our overwhelming grief. Health professionals even consider loss of the past to be a sickness: amnesia – a pathology, a defect in memory, a physiological and/or mental disorder.

The past makes us who we become. Who we are now can be explained, at least in large part, by who we were then – by our past. It is our foundation, the basis on which our identity stands. It creates the framework for the present and the future. The history of our lives is precious. We build on it. We treasure it for who was there and what it teaches us, how it informed our growing up. It begins our singular, signature life story.

Remembering can change the way we see others and the world, change it for the better. Remembering changes our Selves. Grief changes us. Active grief also holds close the memory of the loved one lost. That is the nature – and often the beauty – of grief. The past is present in memory. Ultimately, remembering becomes positive energy in the present and for the future. That is strength and growth.

Forget about it? Get over it? Move on? Better counsel may take a different path. We are beings who experience; memories from our experiences of living are all we get to keep. The past is an elegant archive of the mind, a place of intimate historical interest because of its large and ever-expanding collection of stored memories. Hold tight the past, in grief as well, and taste the tears. There is no shame in our tears. How they can refresh, once they are shed! They are filled with the promise of becoming. They are a necessary growth factor, a naturally occurring character stimulant. Memories sometimes bring tears, and that is normal and healthy. Tears are not a defect or disorder. Their absence, not their presence, may be a disorder.

The past is an agent of hope. It is present but not always conscious in our decision-making. It is a force for transformation. Metamorphosis. It is preparation for the future. Life can only be understood backwards. And understanding gradually unfolds into healing. Life is lived forwards and, with healing, into a Self more forgiving, confident, compassionate, peaceful.

The past is never dead. It is not even past.

— William Faulkner, 1936


Honor and revere both the present and the past; it is not a matter of either/or.

Both require gentle tending, cultivation.



Rea Ginsberg is a retired director of social work services, hospice coordinator, and adjunct professor of clinical social work. She can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @rginsberg2.

Tags: #past, #grief, #eol, #forgetting, #denial, #memory, #PositiveEnergy, #hope

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8 thoughts on “Forget the Past? by Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD

  1. Rea

    This could not have been a better time to demonstrate the importance of the past and its presence in our lives. Passover! Easter! The stories must be remembered and told. They matter. They make a difference in the way we live. They have the power to heavily influence our future. They have changed the course of mankind and the quiet/silence of the individual soul. They teach us that no one is condemned to be a failure, and human dignity resides in each of us. They show us hope in the midst of despair and the importance of never giving up. They tell us that we can refuse to be defeated. That is what the past can do for the now and future Self. The past is transformative.

    From the “dead” past comes new life — which means that the past never died at all.

    Thank you, Dr. Murphy, for your vast and unusual understanding. You are breaking the mold of outmoded convention.

  2. Leslie H

    “To forget is also to deny this love.” This was a beautiful article and I agree with every single word. It has really reminded me of a book I recently read entitled, “Love Never Dies: How to Reconnect and Make Peace with the Deceased” by Dr. Jamie Turndorf ( This is not a religious book by any means, this one is purely spiritual, and very comforting to read. The most common form of grief therapy pushes you to grieve, let go and move on… Dr, Turndorf has emphasized the exact opposite; it is so important to reconnect and, if needed, make peace with the deceased. Never forgot the loved ones you have lost. Celebrate them, talk to them, share them with others. Thanks again for this great post

    1. Rea

      Leslie, thank you for your comment of support! Yes, we do live in a frightened, hurry-up society that seems to have no tolerance for grieving. Peace doesn’t come to the mourner that way. Each of us needs our own special amount of time to grieve and make the transition to a new Self. That Self includes the lost loved one on a plane of existence that no longer requires his physical presence! Relationships continue! As we often say, death is the end of a life, not the end of a relationship. I believe you are quite right: never forget the ones you have lost, make peace with them, talk to them, share them with others, and celebrate their lives. There’s a word for all that. It’s called healing. How long does it take? Often, a lifetime. — Remember that grief and pain are not always synonymous! — Thank you!

  3. Dave Savage and Beverly Molander

    For ideas, advice and materials for many ways of sharing family stories,history, heritage, skills, talents and personalities take a look at THE STORIES section of our website We include some sample videos. One a recent video I did for a family, the 94 year old mother was concerned for days that she would not be able to remember the details of the questions her son would ask. Her 87 year old sister was there to share in the “alternate reality” story telling. Well, for 70 minutes there was non-stop talking and laughing. From my experience it seems that the more your share, the more you remember. Your Guide for Planning Meaningful Funerals, Celebrations of Life and TIMES OF REMEMBRANCE

    1. Rea

      Interesting turn into your own website, Dave. Thank you for the reference. Surely, readers will benefit from the further information.

  4. Robert Jones

    When our past is extreme, we tend to think extremes are all unhealthy, but Love is like water in that it tends to level things out. Extreme waves can be both calmed by good weather, and surfed in bad weather, yet not changed by us.
    For example, look at the life of Gandi of India. His life is full of extremes yet by a peaceful approach he triumphed!

    I agree, understanding our past gives greater meaning and direction to our future. History is not a disposable product.

    Thanks Rea.

    1. Rea

      Robert, what an interesting comment to extend my article! Thank you for the thoughts and for taking the time to write them. — Agreed! The past is not disposable. On the contrary, it is an essential part of the Self. For each and every one of us, it is a foundation… sometimes conscious and sometimes not, but a foundation nevertheless. Build wisely.


  5. Lidia Escobedo

    Self awarness, this is something that you can achieve when you know you are dying pretty soon. Self awarness is something you can achieve when you DONT forget and go trough the process of grieving in love and in light the passing away of one of your beloved people. When they are gone you can “see” with out fear to be judged, you see with your soul naked by pain and longing, this allow you to understand things you couldn´t see or understand before, remembering allow you to this understanding and gives you the opportunity of forgiving yourself and the courage of asking to be forgived and open your heart to forgive others. Remembering gives you the opportunity to contemplate your own death and therefore, be able to live a more congruent and fulfilled life.


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