Perhaps one of the things that many bereaved parents fear is that, in time, they will forget memories of their son or daughter.

But there are many ways in which we can remember some of our child’s special characteristics as well as continue to celebrate their life and who they were.

And, by being creative in simple ways, we can help their siblings join us in this, giving them an opportunity to express their feelings and retain their memories too.

Mark and Rachel’s son Ethan died suddenly and unexpectedly after a short illness when he was two-and-a-half years old. Since then, Rachel has encouraged her family to be creative in the ways that they remember Ethan, particularly at significant times throughout the year. We asked Rachel to tell us about some of the things that they have made together as a way of continuing his presence within their family life.

Ethan’s death left us with a hole in our family that felt like a gaping, open wound. His new baby brother was very young – and we were struggling. We knew from that day, that however many children we were to have in the future, our family would now never feel complete.

Mark and I also knew that we wanted our baby and any subsequent children to grow up being aware that Ethan was a part of our family and feeling like they had always known their big brother. We have had two more children who never met Ethan, but I like to think that through the way we have sewn Ethan’s memory into the fabric of our lives, they know him.

I think I decided to do this somewhat subconsciously. It happened four months after Ethan’s death when I was travelling on the London Underground. As I sat numbly staring at the billboards, one in particular caught my eye. It was part of the ‘Poems on the Underground’ series which said:

Separation
Your absence has gone through me
like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its colour.

W.S. Merwin
Tapestry for Ethan

It resonated so much with me that I quickly scribbled it down and thought that one day I would stitch it onto a piece of fabric to display in my home. It actually took me ten years, but I finally did it last spring.

A place in which to remember

Something else we decided to do was plant a tree in memory of Ethan in a nature reserve. We felt uncomfortable taking our young family to a graveyard and thought a tree was a more fitting place to walk and remember their brother. As the children and the tree have grown together, we have taken photos each year in front of it, and it has provided us with a special focal point, full of life.

Rachel, family and tree
Getting everyone involved

Our desire to involve the children in commemorating their brother in a hands-on way in which they can express themselves has resulted in several creative projects. As we worked together on them, they also gave us space and time to talk about Ethan.

As all bereaved parents know, birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas periods are difficult to navigate. In the early days I struggled to find a way to spend these days that felt right.

As the children grew older, we found making things to hang on Ethan’s tree was a good focus. Now, each year on the anniversary of Ethan’s death and birthday, we make something for his tree. We have created peg butterflies, bird feeders and wire hearts with threaded Cheerios.

Last year my daughter suggested making pom-poms. We asked friends and family to make one each and strung them together to make a garland. We had some lovely messages from people who really felt touched to be involved and shared their memories of Ethan a decade on.

Coping with Christmas

Christmas is a tricky time for us, especially as Ethan died late in the year. The first year, six weeks after his death, it was a complete write-off. I would have been happy to have kept it that way, but with a young family that has of course not been possible! Over the years we have developed coping strategies to deal with the festive season while still making room to include Ethan in our family times.

A friend of mine buys me a new decoration for the Christmas tree each year, and I like to make a willow star to hang on Ethan’s tree. I also light a candle in the middle of our dining table in a jar that we decorated with glass paint. I still hang a stocking up for Ethan, and we donate the money we would have spent on his gift to a children’s charity.

Our lopsided family has come together and created memories

As the children grow up, I am sure that we will develop different ways to remember Ethan. Perhaps they won’t always want to make things, but I hope that through our different projects over the years, our lopsided family has been able to come together and create memories we will carry with us into our future lives.

Twelve years on, the Ethan-shaped absence in our family has been roughly stitched with memories coloured by our loss, leaving behind a scar that we will always bear.

Six further years on

Rachel recently added a post-script, reflecting the changes in the last few years.

Our children are becoming young adults now and are predictably less inclined to take part in craft activities, but we still visit Ethan’s tree which has grown in a wonky way like our lopsided family.

The tree has a dedication plaque so people passing by know it is a memorial. Occasionally strangers hang their own creations on the branches. At Christmas a wreath often appears and I have no idea who puts it there! One year the tree was damaged and a local dog walker contacted the council to ask for it to be sorted out before I even knew about it. The kindness of strangers has been another surprise to us and I hope that it continues to be a place where people take a moment to acknowledge our loss and maybe reflect on what is important in their lives. I continue to find ways to express my loss through being creative. I enjoy learning about how using our hands to create can help with our wellbeing in general. I am now involved in running a wellbeing cafe where a big part of it is about bringing a hobby, slowing down and reflecting on the ‘Five ways to wellbeing.’ This all stems from finding out for myself how being creative has been so helpful in my own grief journey.

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