Many people have found comfort and healing through being creative in different ways within their grief.

Catherine reflects on how the slow thoughtful process of quilting helped her grieve the loss of her son, Alistair.

At the start of January 1999 we were a ‘normal’ busy family with two young boys, our own business and in the middle of a house renovation – life was good, if somewhat chaotic! Shortly after starting school the previous autumn, our younger son Alistair had been diagnosed with a squint, for which he was prescribed glasses and referred to the eye clinic. Over the following months, however, we became aware of small changes in his co-ordination. Although at the time we just put these down to him getting used to his new glasses, in late January his teacher phoned to say that she felt that something was ‘just not quite right’ and suddenly alarm bells were ringing.

We became aware that something might be seriously wrong. We had an appointment with the GP the following day, who arranged for immediate hospital admission. Following scans, we were hit with the bombshell that he had a brain stem tumour, and despite starting radiotherapy he died just ten days later. We left hospital on 11 February without our beloved boy and our world had been turned upside down overnight.

In the darkness and turmoil of the following days, months and even years, we were surrounded by our church family and an amazing community who provided both practical and emotional support. One day a friend who had lost two babies in late pregnancy some years previously showed me the two quilts that she had made in memory of her children, and asked whether it was something that I would be interested in doing.

I have always enjoyed crafts and sewing though had never attempted quilting. With her support, I was willing to give it a go. Together we started planning – a process which was totally absorbing and gave me time to think and talk about Alistair as I selected a pattern and fabrics which I felt reflected his life and personality.

As a starting point I chose lines from the poem, ‘Tis only we who grieve – They do not leave, They are not gone…’ (Anon) which speaks about the essence of the person we have lost still being present in nature all around us. It seemed so fitting for a boy who was never happier than when he was outside getting dirty! I chose fabric which reflected nature and autumnal colours, and designed blocks to fit with the lines of the poem. I also included things that held special memories for us: a cat (we had recently added two kittens to our family, who Alistair loved) and a snowdrop (in bloom when he died, and also the symbol of the bereaved parents’ group at the children’s hospital which was such a support to us at the time).

Gradually the pieces came together and the creative process gave me a purpose: time to think about Alistair in what seemed a positive way and an opportunity to chat through thoughts and feelings as my friend and I worked together. As the quilt neared completion, I would sit in the evenings hand-quilting and I remember finding the sensation of the quilt on my knee physically comforting.

There is a label on the back which says it was completed in 2005, six years after Alistair died – it was not a quick process! But I now see that so much of my early grief was channelled into this work and the final quilt is almost a physical embodiment of those early stages in my grief journey. The finished piece still hangs in our stairwell. It is something that has become part of the fabric of the house and means that Alistair is always present as part of our family and our home. I hope that it will also be something that will always remain in the family, perhaps through the generations, and I find reassurance in the thought that the memory of him will live on that way.

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