Human InterestPersonal History


I just read a great opinion piece in my best reference source, the Journal of the American Medical Association, JAMA. It was written by a West Virginia oncology physician who related how the site of major occurrences in his life reminded him of those incidents any time he returned to that location. He called this phenomenon “Site-associated memories.” In particular, he shared how he grieved the death of his wife 18 years earlier every time he returned to the room where she received chemotherapy; plus, the sadness he felt upon entering operating room 5 where she had “critical surgery,” and “room 826” where she died. Site-associated memories are often filled with overwhelming emotion. 

We all experience site-associated memories. We remember where we were on 9-11, what we were doing when we heard President Kennedy had been assassinated, and where we were when we broke our leg or had an auto accident. “Site-associated memories cause primarily emotions, [and] even physical sensations.” They re-ignite feelings that occurred as a result of life events. You vividly remember where you first laid eyes on your future spouse, where you experienced your first kiss, and the room where she labored to have your first child. You can’t always return to those places, now, but if you could, you would feel the happiness in your life associated with those places. The article’s author was able to return to those sites and felt multiple emotions when he did.

Site-associated memories are lifelong—you never forget the terror you felt when that dog  chased you in your back yard when you were five, where you took the fall that almost broke your neck when snow-skiing, and the damage to the right side of your dad’s car after you drove down that narrow, curved driveway lined by a five-foot high stone wall. I can still remember the horrible scraping sound I heard that night, as the rocks removed the paint and dented the entire right side of the car. Sometime later I returned to that location in the daytime, and wondered out loud “why on earth did I drive through there.” I can still see that wall and the car. 

Along with the traumas come the joys. Driving past the church where our wedding and reception occurred brings back multiple happy memories and images. It also reminds me how sore my right hand got from shaking the hands of 350 people! I remember the excitement of vacations at Hilton Head, and the pool where those three boys kept saying, “beef, bacon, and cheese.” It made no sense then and doesn’t now, but if I were to see that pool, that would be my first thought! 

I haven’t been to Community East Hospital in Indianapolis for 54 years, but if I did, my first memory would be of the 75 days my father spent in a private room in the south tower building dying of cancer. That was a terrible time. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been in Community Hospital for so long. 

Many site-associated memories are private and too painful to share. Many are uplifting and hilarious, but the site of life’s important events brings back memories as if the event were happening again. Thank God for memory and memories. It’s memories that keep us alive, keep us young, active, and happy intermingled with tragedy and sadness. So much of our psyche is formed from our memories. Good memories give us strength and optimism. We, also feel fear and dread being where a bad memory occurred. We avoid that place to avoid reliving the pain. 

I think this author has a unique situation. He was a cancer doctor who worked every day in the place where his wife died of cancer. His workplace was a constant reminder of the ordeal she went through, that he shared with her. We all deal with site-associated memories in our own manner and cope by whatever means works—avoidance, denial, isolation, immersion, or acceptance. We have to choose the way that works best for each of us. 

Reference: Johnstone RE. Practicing with Memories. JAMA 2021 Dec 21;326(23):2369.

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  1. You put into words the feelings and memories that I have in different place. Sometime it’s easier to avoid these places that make me sad. I love remembering and returning to happy places. I have sometimes verbalized these thoughts. I have never thought of them the way you wrote out it. Lovely blog.

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