I’ve never really imagined myself to be the type to give someone a “Sympathy Gift”.
And it wasn’t until I found myself facing the death of a family member, where I got to witness the true gift of Sympathy.
My uncle was never really one you’d expect to be the sensitive and romantic type.. He spent most of his life in the incarceration system, and so he wore his tough guy mask often, and well. Yet every year, for every birthday, he always treated his mother (my grandmother), with an adorable card, flowers, candy, and some big surprise that she’d absolutely love, like a new washing machine (hey, who doesn’t love receiving a high tech washing machine?).
My uncle wouldn’t buy me washing machines for holidays, but he was always sure to write me a very nice note that touched my heart deeply. He really cared, and it was always such an honor to see him melt his toughness away with love for his family.
My favorite example of this was just days before my uncle passed away. We were having a 4th of July barbeque and I suggested that our family had a “gratitude circle
“, where we all told each other what we love about each other the most. He was the first to go, surprisingly, and expressed a deep sense of love and gratitude to all of us. It was probably the sweetest moment my family had in a long while, and I’ll always remember it.
Then, one day, it happened.
We got the phone call at around 1pm, while my mom and I were cooling off with AC from the blazing hot summer and watching a movie together. “He’s gone,” my grandmother said. “Tommy is gone,” she added in a cold and scared tone of voice over the phone.
There’s nothing more primal than losing someone who shares your blood. Nothing as overwhelmingly, whole body alarming than finding out your family member is gone forever, with a single phone call. But alas, it was true. And we had to face the death of my uncle, together, as a family.
Sympathy gifts were the glue
Not many people stayed close to my uncle. He was a pretty shy guy. So I knew that in order to keep the memory of my uncle alive in my family, it was going to be my role to facilitate that. So I went where I never thought I’d go… to a craft store, and a field of flowers. I found myself moving quickly and automatically, as if my body was guiding me rather than my brain. And keep in mind, this was maybe just a few hours after his death.
My first stop was a craft store. I grabbed some picture frames, a vase, paper and glue. I spotted a teddy bear and grabbed that, too. I then found myself in a field, somehow magically, and began frantically picking flowers in a field until I finally dropped to my knees and cried.
The grief I felt that day was probably the strongest bout of grief my body has ever held. Yet, I kept going. I didn’t know who I was doing this for… for him, for me, for my grandmother?
And finally, after a few more hours of listening to his favorite rock n’ roll music, my masterpiece was complete. I compiled a scrapbook style poster of my uncle’s best times in life, captured in photos. Next to the poster, I put his favorite coffee mug (which was actually a beer mug), a teddy bear, some candles, and my flowers.
Sympathy gifts became the service
I invited everyone in my family to come over and light a candle for him, and say their favorite memory of him. As we didn’t ever go on to have a formal funeral service, this was a huge moment for all of us.
And when it was over, my eighty-year-old grandmother approached me and asked kindly, “Can I take this all home, Krystal?”. I know you made it, but I’m so used to Tommy coming over everyday. I really can’t imagine life without seeing him everyday. I hope it’s not too selfish.”
Without hesitation, I sent my grandmother home with everything I made. And I’m so glad I did. For months, when I would call my grandmother, she would mention how happy and grateful she was for this sympathy collage. It kept the memory of my uncle Tommy alive for her, and since she was living alone, she told me many times that it made her feel more safe and loved each time she walked by it or saw it.
In fact, still to this day, now nearly three years later, my grandmother still talks about what I made for my uncle Tommy. And this, my friends, is my case for Sympathy Gifts.
An invitation to remember
Whether you’ve just lost someone, are a funeral professional, or are looking for ways to comfort those grieving around you, I can’t encourage enough the one small act of a Sympathy Gift. It’s in these moments of transformation when we remember these small acts forever. It can be as simple as a bouquet of flowers with a heartfelt message, a piece of jewelry, or even a book on grief that we can be so touched by. So keep that in mind. Sympathy gifts are simply…. an invitation to remember.
How have Sympathy Gifts shaped your grief journey, or helped you support another’s? Tell us in the comments below!
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