Grieving Lost Youth

Working out on the treadmill with ear buds in and music turned up – “Little ditty about Jack and Dianne…” a John (Cougar) Mellencamp song comes up on my I-tunes play list. As I was running (in place) along, I was transported back to 1982. There on the treadmill I started grieving my lost youth. I Remembered the dreams and plans and people, and recognized that many, many of my dreams from that time will never be fulfilled.

Later I continued to think about this experience. I have a theory: there is something about youth (even if it is not happy) that we grieve, as we get older. We believe in possibilities in our youth – possibilities that look fainter and fainter as we age. Grieving our lost youth, our age, the lost potentials, the freedoms of youth – all of this may be a denial of our upcoming deaths, but also may be part of the process of awareness of the limits of our lives. The awareness of the limits may be a call to consciousness – to live our lives more deliberately.

As we age, we are aware of the lost possibilities of preceding times. Most of us block this awareness – except at certain times. Going to a high school reunion, when vulnerable in a particular way and we hear an old song that brings back a state of time of a particular time in ones life, perhaps hearing of the serious illness or death of someone we knew at a particular time in our lives.

Though these moments of nostalgia can bring back memories of joy, they also remind us of time that has passed, opportunities missed, for example, that girl you never asked out, the challenge you never took, etc. These are lost and gone, never to return. They also lock in our life path – If I had taken a semester off from school as an undergraduate to follow the Grateful Dead – where would I be now? If my first wife and I had broken off the relationship, before our marriage – how would my life have turned out differently? I cannot change these aspects of my life now, but I can recognize the multitude of options I did not pursue then. I can also be alert to how my life has changed. Part of me HAS died – when I look at the life I had then, but part of me survives – the part that has memory of my past.

Can you use this to help you live more meaningfully? I think so. Here is an exercise that may help you get in touch with the emotions, grieve more fully and find a hidden meaning from previous parts of your life.

First: think about different times of your life – perhaps early teens, late teens, early 20’s, and mid 20’s. Find times that as you reflect on them were important to you. Now select a song, or multiple songs from that time of your life. For me – I like songs that I liked at that time, even if my tastes have changed. I also find it helpful to select a song that was very popular for a brief time, and you have not heard it in a while.

If you can select the music to be played in chronological order that may be helpful. Get a journal or paper to write your reactions on and then play the songs, one at a time, with plenty of time between each song to reflect and remember. As fully as possible – recreate the emotions, the experiences, and the way your life was at that time. What were your most important values at that time? Who were the most important people at that time, and what were your biggest dreams at that time? Let yourself be bathed in the memories. Take careful notes so you can recognize this part of your life. If the music does not bring back any particular memories for you that is o.k., there are several pieces you will listen to. Any memory, any recollection of what your life was like when you heard that music is worth noting. (Note: other forms of memory triggers, such as photographs, newspaper clippings, etc., may be used in addition to or substituted for music – but for many people music is very powerful).

The John Melencamp song continues:

“Hold on to 16 as long as you can
Changes come around real soon
Make us women and men

Oh yeah life goes on long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.”

Hopefully this exercise can help you see your past as a stage in your life, and the inevitability of letting go of “16” – in order to live fully as “women and men”. I also hope that this exercise will help you continue to hold on to the thrill of living.

Michael Winters is a Psychologist in Houston focusing on marriage counseling and therapy. Michael received his PhD from the University of Memphis and has been practicing since 1991.