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Author and Poet Meghan O’Rourke on Living Life in Honor of Her Mother

Award-winning author, editor, literary critic, and poet Meghan O’Rourke‘s work has appeared in Slate, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publicationsWhile pursuing her extraordinary career, O’Rourke was faced with traveling back and forth from home to care for her mother, who died at age 55 of metastatic colorectal cancer. My mother also died young (57), and also from cancer (ovarian). And similar to Meghan, I was a journalist (working as a television news producer) while helping to care for my mom in her final days.

After Meghan’s mother passed away, she found solace writing her poetry collections, Once and Sun in Days (to be published in paperback this fall), and her gripping memoir, The Long Goodbye. She is currently working on a nonfiction book about chronic illness.

In our interview, Meghan discusses the many ways she keeps her mother’s memory alive, including safeguarding a lock of her hair. I’m thrilled Meghan joined me for this revealing Q & A.

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The Upside of Getting Dirty: How Gardening Boosts Memories of Loved Ones

Getting outside is healing. In fact, being outdoors has been proven to increase creative thinking, decrease stress, and heighten our senses.

With this in mind, why not take advantage of the sights and smells of nature to honor and celebrate the friend, spouse, parent, or sibling you never want to forget? Below are four of my favorite ideas for doing just that.

Create a Memory Garden. First, visit your local nursery to buy your loved one’s favorite herb, plant, or flower. Or, simply pick combinations of these that feature his or her favorite colors, tastes and smells. Second, add several “Love Rocks” to make this space even more special. …Continue Reading

How to Make Sense of Life’s Highs and Lows

The last several days have been a whirlwind of emotion for my family. My beloved father-in-law passed away within the same week my son was heading out to prom and graduating from high school.

The juxtaposition of such highs and lows was remarkable but hardly unusual. Perhaps you’ve had to navigate such emotionally complicated terrain, too. My husband and I decided the only way to move through this time was to address each experience completely yet separately, giving ourselves permission to be wholly invested in each one. This allowed us to be fully present at my father-in-law’s funeral, keeping thoughts of Jake’s end-of-year celebrations at bay. And the next day, switching gears, we were able to rejoice in Jake’s big moment, while keeping our sadness – and Jake’s too — in check. …Continue Reading

Meaningful Ways to Remember Loved Ones on Graduation Day

In 2014, I shared on Facebook how my parents would have been so proud of my son when he graduated from 8th grade and was inducted into the National Junior Honor Society. In the photo I posted back then, he’s shaking hands with the principal and assistant principal of his middle school.

Fast forward nearly four years and Jake will be graduating high school in just a few weeks. My parents would have been overjoyed now, too. Perhaps even more so.

While I wish my mom and dad could be part of this special occasion, I recognize there are opportunities for seamlessly incorporating their memory into our special day.

Consider the below ideas for your upcoming celebrations.

Meaningful Opportunities for Remembering Loved Ones on Graduation Day

  • Consider engraving a new or existing piece of jewelry with their loved one’s handwriting. Simply take a note or letter with their loved one’s signature and bring it to a jeweler. Jewelers can etch names and shapes (smiley faces and hearts they may have drawn) into virtually anything — charms, cuff links, and bracelets. I discuss this idea and other great strategies in my book, Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive.

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Memorial Day: Make This Year Really Count

I’ll be celebrating Memorial Day in Washington, D.C. this year. In honor of our nation’s fallen heroes, I’ve been asked to speak at the TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar. There is no greater honor than helping more than 2,000 military family members remember their loved ones — the husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters left behind. I’ll be including new creative and uplifting strategies I’ve discovered since writing Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive. I can think of no place I’d rather be.

If you’re looking for meaningful ways to commemorate Memorial Day, the following idea is one of my favorites.

This picture is of an army jacket refashioned into a duffle bag. There are dozens of upcycling projects you can do, either by yourself (if you’re handy with needle and thread!), or with the help of a local tailor. I’ve had great success finding creative partners online.

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On Mother’s Day: Celebrating Moms Gone Too Soon

I’ve learned a critical lesson in the 20 years since my mother died: the more proactive I am about remembering her, the happier I tend to be. This is because keeping a loved one’s memory alive is absolutely essential for healing. (Read more in The Reflection Effect, my essay for O, the Oprah Magazine, here.) And because of this, Mother’s Day is a perfect time to celebrate what your mom still means to you. Below are some of my favorite ways to honor moms no longer with us.

Plant Daffodils

The idea is to plant one bulb for every year your mother lived. Daffodils are perennials, so they’ll come back spring after spring — and they’re virtually indestructible. In my book, Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive, I discuss how this is a great social activity and can involve family, friends, and neighbors. Not only will you benefit from the extra hands, you’ll be able to use the time to invite conversation and share stories about your mom.

 

Buy Meaningful Gifts

As many readers and friends know, I’m super proud to be Executive Family & Memories Editor at Legacy Republic. The charm shown here features a photograph of my Aunt Ronnie, who died a few years ago of breast cancer. The necklace is by far one of my favorite Legacy Republic keepsakes. I gave it to my cousin in remembrance and in celebration of her mother. My hope is that it prompts her two young children to ask questions about their grandmother, an incredible woman they never got to know. If you want to get a meaningful keepsake for yourself or a friend, Mother’s Day deadlines are approaching fast. See more gift ideas here.

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The Best Earth Day Ideas for Remembering Loved Ones

It hasn’t seemed much like spring in New York, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Earth Day on April 22. I love the opportunity warmer weather provides for reflection. It’s an unparalleled time for taking advantage of the outdoors and finding creative ways to remember loved ones. Below are a few of my favorite ideas for using Earth Day as an occasion to celebrate the family and friends you never want to forget.

1. Create a Memory Garden

Grow your loved one’s prized flowers, treasured plants, or favorite herbs. Or simply pick combinations of these that feature his or her favorite colors. Choose a prime location for your Memory Garden so you can see and enjoy it often.  If you live in an apartment, this project can also be done with terra cotta pots. For more ideas on using flowers to strengthen memories of loved ones, please read these posts.

 

 

 

2. Fortify the Earth 

Plant a memorial tree in recognition of loved ones on Earth Day. Explore ways to do so by using websites like nationalforests.org (benefitting the National Forest Foundation) or www.worldlandtrust.org (protecting wildlife habitats worldwide). For a more hands-on experience, saplings can be planted locally. Towns across the country host ceremonies for Arbor Day (held in April, too). You can also plant a tree in your Memory Garden.

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Spring Cleaning Increases Resilience After Loss: Here’s Why

When a loved one dies, there are almost always objects and heirlooms to sort through – and then decisions to make about what to do with them. After my parents died, I felt a responsibility to keep many of their belongings – my father’s neckties, my mother’s scarves, their books, home videos, photographs, and more. And for a while, these possessions made me feel closer to my mom and dad. Surprisingly though, so did repurposing them and not keeping them at all.

Purging objects and upcyling others drives resilience after loss. Deciding what to do with belongings, instead of unceremoniously packing them away in a closet, attic, or basement, sparks a sense of control. Death makes us feel unmoored; taking ownership of what comes next makes us feel empowered. Being proactive also increases the likelihood the belongings we choose to keep will be truly meaningful to us and won’t weigh us down.

Below are five opportunities for using spring cleaning to build resilience after loss. I explore many more creative strategies for remembering and celebrating family and friends in my bookPassed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive.

Frame Their Handwriting — Frame a handwritten recipe or locate your loved one’s signature on a letter, car title, or passport. Doing so not only gives you the chance to sort through these items, it provides new opportunities to talk about your loved one when family and friends come to visit.

Upcycle Clothing — Reimagine your loved one’s favorite sweater, shirt, or pair of jeans. Gather a few pieces and transform them into teddy bears, throw pillows, or bean bags. Pieces of fabric can also be used to create one-of-a-kind quilts. Read my post on upcycling and how I created a quilt with my dad’s neckties.

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Jon Stewart on Grief, Resilience, and Supporting Those Who Serve Others

Jon Stewart’s father passed away several years ago. But the former The Daily Show host’s personal experience with loss is not what prompted our discussion for my grief & resilience blog. Jon and I were in Arlington, Virginia to join Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and founder of TAPS, Bonnie Carroll, for the launch of the TAPS Institute for Hope and Healing. Also with us were authors Hope Edelman, Claire Bidwell Smith, and Rebecca Soffer. Read more about this pioneering organization and its new Institute here.

Jon is a staunch supporter of service members, veterans, and military families. He is also a tireless advocate for first responders and is credited with being a driving force behind getting Congress to pass the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.

The Zadroga Act provides health care and financial support for 9/11 first responders. These men and women breathed in toxic dust and smoke during the massive cleanup at Ground Zero. According to John Feal, founder of the FealGood Foundation, more than 7,000 first responders have developed cancer (as certified by the government) and nearly 2,000 have died.

Jon has spoken at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and USO events and he’s visited with troops overseas. Most impressively, he’s used his singular platform to hold America accountable for the care of those who have served and suffered.

Our conversation was intimate and far-reaching. He also spoke with WTOP radio and Connecting Vets about the significance of the new Institute. Below is an edited compilation of the most important portions of these discussions.

Allison: Why have you chosen to talk so openly about grief and resilience?
Jon: Grief and illness are really isolating when they occur. Unfortunately, when people go through tough times many choose not to reach out for help or don’t know what to do. There’s so much confusion. Individuals may even wonder if they’re grieving the “right” way. [Note: there is no “right” way to grieve that works for everyone.] And while everybody experiences loss, too few know how to grieve so they can hold tight to their loved one’s memory while making the best of the time they still have in front of them. (You can learn 85 strategies for honoring and remembering family and friends by reading my book, Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive.) Sadly, this is one of those fields where TAPS has an incredible wealth of experience and compassion.

Allison: What inspired you to lend your voice to the launch of TAPS Institute for Hope and Healing?
Jon: I’ve done a bunch of work with the USO and military families at Walter Reed and Fisher House. I’d become aware of TAPS through that. Yet even amongst injured or ill veterans, there is a separate area for Gold Star families or other military families who have experienced loss. There’s a divide, even within communities that have each other’s backs in an enormous way – and there’s no community better than the veterans’ community with each other. But man, grief is still this really strange area, this taboo that I think is really tough for people to think about. And Bonnie, to her great credit, used her loss as a springboard to be there for others who are in that same situation. It’s incredible what she’s been able to build.

Allison: I’m sure you get asked to lend your voice to many charities. Why first responders and the military?
Jon: I’m drawn to supporting people who give of themselves so selflessly. It’s an unusual individual who, when you hear the sounds of trouble, actually moves towards it, rather than away from it. I’m generally in the “I just have to be faster than the least fastest person’ category.

I’m also struck by the stoicism within these communities. Members of the military and their families don’t often reach out for help when they need it. And I think too often we depend on them, and yet when the time comes for them to depend on us, we’re not there for them. So I try to help push along the idea that the least we can do for them is repay their service and selflessness with support.

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This Is Us and the Importance of Preserving Family Memories

If you’re a This Is Us fan like me, it will likely come as no surprise I’m still thinking about the episode that aired after the Super Bowl. Quick recap: viewers learned exactly how Milo Ventimiglia’s character, Jack, died.

The episode shows how the Pearson family remembers Jack’s death on Super Bowl Sunday 20 years before. The characters reminisce in various ways: Randall celebrates his father’s memory by having a party and making a big deal of the day (Jack loved the Super Bowl), Rebecca, Jack’s wife, prepares his favorite lasagna, while Kate, his daughter, watches a home movie of her and her father.

What struck me most, however, was the near catastrophe that happened when Kate’s VCR made a terrifying whirring sound while she viewed the tape. She’d been enjoying the video when the machine sputtered and stopped playing. Her husband attempts to fix it, but the VHS tape seems beyond repair. Kate starts crying at the possibility these images are gone forever. That video is her only copy. The couple rush to get the tape fixed, and luckily, it’s salvaged and uploaded to the Cloud.

The Great VHS Scare is a reminder that our most important memories are just one crisis away from being eternally lost. After my father died (my second parent to pass away), I started digitizing our family’s 35mm slides, 8mm film reels, and yes, VHS tapes. I began slowly at first. After several years of starting and stopping, proceeding and then being distracted by work, my children, life!, I’ve now uploaded most of these images and feel secure they’re safeguarded for my children and future generations.

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