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Grief and Remembrance During Summer

That’s a picture of my mother and me on Fire Island, a popular car-free summer vacation spot off the coast of Long Island, New York. I’ve always cherished this photo but appreciate it even more now that I’m a mom.

Looking at it lately, I see things that were invisible to me before I gave birth: I notice my mother carrying our towels and I’m just carefree, riding my tricycle. I’ve also come to recognize the way I’m dressed reflects the outsize love my mother had for me. With red hair and pale skin, she has me absolutely covered — a straw hat to keep the sun off my face, and a long-sleeve shirt so large it goes to my knees.

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Author Susan Orlean on Giving Herself Permission to Repurpose Her Mother’s Jewelry

Author Susan Orlean is popping up everywhere these days: the New York Times Book Review has featured her latest work, The Library Book, and she was Pamela Paul’s guest on The Book Review podcast. She was also given a well-deserved spotlight in The Washington Post, USA TODAY, and The National Book Review. And of course, she remains a staff writer at The New Yorker, a role she’s held since 1992. Because of her hectic schedule, I was especially thrilled she agreed to do this Q&A with me.

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Claire Bidwell Smith Shares the Everyday Ways She Honors Her Parents

Claire Bidwell Smith is an author and grief therapist based in California. Her latest book, Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, is an important exploration of how grief and anxiety are so commonly intertwined. Claire approaches each chapter from a raw, intimate vantage point: her parents were each diagnosed with cancer when she was 14, and by the time she was 25, they were both gone. Along the way and later, she developed severe, life-altering panic attacks.

Claire says she felt life was wholly out of her control. An only child, she felt alone and afraid and turned to alcohol to calm her anxiety. She eventually took leave from college. For our Q & A, Claire discusses the strategies that helped her heal, including keeping her parents’ memories alive. (Spoiler Alert! There’s a section in Anxiety called, “Allison Gilbert’s Suggestions for Keeping Memories Alive.) Claire also asked me to share a personal experience with anxiety following the loss of my mother and father. (Hint: My son was a new driver and missed his curfew by a few minutes. How did I react? Not well.)

Read my far-reaching Q & A with Claire here.

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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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Preventing Cancer – What I Did to Stay Alive

I woke up this morning without breasts. Not a surprise. This is how it’s been since I underwent a prophylactic double mastectomy six years ago on August 7, 2012 – to prevent getting breast cancer. I still think, as I imagine Angelina Jolie believes of her life-affirming surgery, it’s the best decision I ever could have made.

For more than a decade, my gynecologist warned me I was high-risk for developing cancer. My mother had died of ovarian cancer and I tested positive for BRCA1, the genetic mutation that bumps lifetime risk of breast cancer from 12% (the general population) up to 85%. Couple all of this with the knowledge my grandmother died of breast cancer, and surgery actually felt like an opportunity, not a sentence. Doctors promised the 11.5-hour procedure (the plastic surgeon created breast “mounds” out of my own belly fat so I could avoid getting implants) would free me from many more years of medical surveillance – a battery of non-stop breast exams, mammograms, and MRIs. And it did. Even better, when the anesthesia wore off, the relentless fear of being diagnosed with breast cancer was gone. I was free. …Continue Reading

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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