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A Special Memorial Keepsake – Before Death and After Loss

by J. Malec

Special memorial keepsakes

Love letters: Memorial keepsakes and healing gifts

Memorial keepsakes come in many forms. Traditionally they are purchased or prepared for the bereaved after someone dies. But consider a keepsake prepared before one dies for those left behind. And then consider a different type of keepsake - a letter written to a loved one who has passed away. This type of letter is often experienced as a healing gift.

The motivation behind each note is quite different. The former is written to convey feelings and thoughts that might be difficult to emphasize in life or that we didn’t have enough time to say. The latter is written as a way of finishing conversations, releasing our grief – or, simply and poignantly, as a way to feel close to the departed.

A memory lamp and a special love note

Elaine Mansfield, author of Leaning into Love, invites us to leave love notes while we still can. She shares an experience she had with a terminally ill guest who attended her book reading. The guest asked, “What can we leave behind for people we love when we die? What meant the most to you?”

Finding small love notes from her husband, Vic, dispersed amongst her belongings after his passing meant the most to Ms. Mansfield. She discovered one of Vic’s notes in her purse at a very difficult time, just before she was to give a TEDx talk. The talk was about the grief she experienced after losing Vic. The letter gave her renewed strength when she needed it most.

Many people are helped through their grief by words left to them by closest friends, family and lovers. Author Rose Rouse complied last letters from soldiers, prisoners and the fatally ill, as well as suicide notes. The poignant collection, titled Last Letters to Loved Ones, spans the emotional continent from heartwarming to depressing. The experiences urge us to write these letters now, before it’s too late.

To write such a letter might be far from anything we’ve ever done. But consider creating a writing space beside a memory lamp that invites reflection. Thoughts, questions, experiences and words might come when they are given ample room, as well as pen and paper. In your letter, you might even invite your loved one to sit beside the same memory lamp to read your letter once you are gone.

A letter to the deceased

Another powerful practice is writing letters to the deceased as a way of coping with loss. In a blog entry on JourneyThroughGrief.com, writer Janelle Shantz Hertzler relays a story in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ book On Grief and Grieving that she found helpful. In her own words, Hertzler conveys the story about a woman who wrote letters to her deceased mother.

In this letter she talked about how much she missed her mother, about how bad things were going at work because of her loss, and about the terrible void she felt was left in her life. She then decided to write a letter to herself from her mother using her non-dominant hand. Her mother told her that she missed her as well and then began to give her some typical motherly advice. The woman was surprised at how this part of the activity made her feel deeply connected to her mother again. She repeated this process whenever she was really missing her mother.

Letter writing is a helpful tool. It allows us another channel to release the powerful emotions around loss, and perhaps find some meaning. It can be used as a ritual to complete unfinished business with the departed, to say goodbye and I love you.

Letters can be kept with a collection of special memorial keepsakes such as a votive candle, candle urn for ashes or with sympathy gifts from supportive friends and family. Letters to departed loved ones can also be used as a kind of journal. Some people throw them in a bonfire for release or mail them to an impossible address to let them go.

Hertzler found that: “Writing through grief is one way to get that repetitious story out of our bodies. For me I felt like once I had documented my story on paper, my body and mind no longer had to hold it. It helped me feel free to move on and find healing—I was no longer responsible for carrying my story.”

 J. Malec is a visual artist and writer whose work often deals with themes related to loss and healing. She lives in Minneapolis, and spends much of her time practicing permaculture in the city.

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