Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Grief is like the ocean

 A few days ago, a dear friend of mine asked me to meet her at the cemetery. She was going to view her dearly departed husband's headstone for the first time since his death in August. I didn't really want to go because my own grief was so heavy. I'd lost my brother in July and hadn't been able to completely process the loss yet. Visiting the military cemetery where my sweet friend's husband was buried was going to be hard for several reasons. My parents were both buried there and my brother could have been buried there too since he'd served in the Army, but his wife had chosen to have him cremated. Without going into detail about that, I'll just say there is a lot of unresolved hurt in our family over the way his death was handled. Anyway, back to my friend's request. 

My husband and I drove 2 hours to get to the cemetery. It was important for us to be there to offer moral support to my friend, Janice. We didn't know it at the time, but she had asked some of her aunts, her brother, and sister in law to join her. I was thankful she wasn't going to be there alone, but when we got to her, the tears began to flow. 

I watched as she clung to Jack's headstone. As I went over to her, she told me she didn't want to leave, that she wanted to stay there forever. I did my best to console her and tell her that she'd see Jack again one day when she got to heaven, but I could tell the words weren't much comfort. 

As we all stood in front of Jack's gravesite, I did my best to remember his sweet smile and his hearty laugh. He was always so jovial and optimistic. I missed him terribly and wished he'd never been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Though he'd done everything the doctors had suggested to prolong his life, he didn't even make it a year past diagnosis. 

When Janice was ready, we left the cemetery and headed for a nearby barbecue joint for lunch. We all reminisced about Jack while there and as we were about to leave, Janice reached into her purse and pulled out a sandwich bag. I knew what it was without her telling me. She'd mentioned a special request to me at his funeral - she wanted me to make some sort of keepsake for her that would include clippings she'd taken from his beard his last week on Earth. Discreetly, she passed the bag to me and I nodded my head. She knew I'd do my best to make something meaningful and that I'd treat his beard with respect. I didn't want to take it but I did. I'd promised and I would keep my word. 

On the way home, I cried. Phil asked what was wrong and I told him. That bag of beard trimmings in my purse was a tangible reminder of my sweet friend. I didn't want to open the bag and touch his beard. I knew it would be too much. 

When we got home, I took the baggie out of my purse and put it in my craft room. I couldn't bear to look at it and I needed time to think of something to make for Janice. 

I wracked my brain trying to think of something I could make with his beard and the only thing I could think of was a keepsake pillow. I'd put the beard trimmings inside the pillow but somehow I'd have to make them accessible to Janice, too. 

Making the pillow was easy. I took some muslin and printed a photo of Jack onto it. It was one of Janice's favorite photos - one of Jack as Santa Claus. He used to work as Santa every year at Christmas for a department store in Florida. They requested him because of his "real" white beard and his happy spirit. After printing the photo of Jack on it, I used my Cricut machine to cut some iron on vinyl into a saying, "I'll hold you in my heart until I can hold you again in Heaven." I ironed that in place and then embroidered a heart in the center of the photo and the wording. I took the muslin and a pretty floral piece of fabric, some ball fringe trim, and made a pillow then stuffed it with poly-fiberfill. Next came the part I dreaded - incorporating the beard hair. I had to think of a way to do it that would keep the beard trimmings together and yet allow Janice to touch them whenever she wanted. I prayed about it and asked God what I could do. He gave me the idea of making a small heart and stuffing it with the beard hairs to place inside the pillow permanently. 

I made the heart out of 2 pieces of muslin and embroidered the edges with a blanket stitch of maroon embroidery thread. When it came time to stuff it with Jack's hair, I wept. I did not want to open the bag. I didn't not want to smell the sickness of cancer on his beard and I did not want to touch the hair. I know it will sound callous and unkind, but I'm being truthful. I'm embarrassed to admit it but I put on an N-95 mask and some nitrile gloves before removing the beard hair from the bag. 

Through the gloves I could feel the coarseness of Jack's beard and I couldn't contain my sadness. The tears came quickly and overwhelmed me, but somehow, I managed to push all of the hair into the small heart and sew it shut. 

Gently, I place the heart inside the pillow so Janice could see the outline of it through the muslin. I centered it directly under the embroidered heart I'd sewn between Jack's photo and the wording. When I was done, I showed the completed work to my husband and asked what he thought about it. He said he was sure she'd like it. 

In the next week or so, I'll meet up with Janice to give her the pillow. I pray it touches her heart. 

Grief is so hard to process. It comes in waves like the ocean. Sometimes the feelings are mild and gentle ebbing and flowing. Other times, they're rough and relentless pounding hard against the inside of your heart. 

Jack as Santa

I don't ever want to make a keepsake like that again. I know the custom of keeping a deceased loved one's hair has been around for a very long time, but to be the one to touch and hold it after the person has passed is so very difficult. 

Christmas will be coming soon and I've got a picture of Jack in his Santa suit on a table in my living room. I prefer to remember him doing something he loved and I can just bet he was a great encouragement to all of those dear little ones as they visited him at the mall. 

This year has been tragic in so many ways, but I can't dwell on all the negatives associated with it. I know God wants me to focus on the good things. Jack was a good friend and a jolly soul. Janice still needs my love and support and I'll do my best to give it to her. Friendship is a wonderful gift and one I'll always treasure, but sometimes, a broken heart reminds us of the brevity of life. We should never take a day for granted.

The keepsake pillow I made


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