Over the years, I have developed a nurturing healing habit of creating, somewhere in my home, a shrine or an altar for a deceased loved one. I allow instinct, intuition, and the flow of life in that moment to guide me and the objects I choose.
The first shrine I created was in the summer of 1981. It was a spontaneous outgrowth of love for our baby Beth who died a week after her birth. It began with the yellow roses from her burial day and the little hat with a red ribbon the NICU nurses made for her. Then I added the sympathy cards, a candle, the program from her funeral, a photo of her in the arms of her dad and me. The little pink and white rubber teddy bear our Brian and Laura had chosen for her. A small yellow and white flowered blanket that held the smell of her. Pictures our children and the neighbor kids colored. All the items that reminded us of her short life and the comfort and love of family and friends. It stayed on our dining room buffet for months or a year until the day came when I realized I could remove it slowly.
In 2003, I made a small shrine for my dad. Again, a photo, a candle, the program from the funeral Mass, the eulogy I had offered, his three books written about his life including his army years and Soo Line Railroad life and work. Little mementos like a miniature Soo Line train, a cross, his childhood French Canadian prayer books, cribbage board, and a pipe and matches.
In 2006, the shrine was for my mother. The red etched glass candle holder that was in constant flame for the week of her dying, a photo of her hand cupped with my hand and my granddaughter’s hand. The CD of chants we played on loop. Her rosary, the program of her funeral, my written eulogy. The red blanket we wrapped her in after washing her body following her death, and flower petals. I can still smell her shrine as it left a lasting scent of roses within me.
Last September 2020, my shrine was for my youngest sister, Mary Beth. Living her life with Down Syndrome and then adding Alzheimer’s to the mix made for an array of objects for this 57-year-old woman. A stuffed animal, a beaded necklace, her photo with her boyfriend, the eulogy I wrote, flowers, one of her paintings, her ashes, sympathy cards, a photo of our parents, and a photo of all of us siblings. Surrounding it all in the dining room was everything she owned. All her bits of papers she folded and saved, all the jewelry that she would adorn herself with but became lost to her memory as Alzheimer’s settled in. All her stuffed animals, her guitar, paintings, clothes, and trinkets. All expressing both the simplicity of her life as well as the challenges she lived with, in her day to day.
Now in 2021, the shrine is for my mother-in-law, Winnie, my bonus mother. All the objects that have come to symbolize her life for me and her son, Leo. A pair of scissors, a purple yoyo, a bounty of flowers, a memorial candle, her Benedictine Oblate book, a photo of her, a wooden Benedictine cross, butterfly cards, bells, and butterfly towels, always butterflies. This altar started on the kitchen peninsula where we eat breakfast and it keeps growing to be the full peninsula, as we add a necklace, a pair of earrings, a butterfly pin, more cards, her favorite quilt. This one is still fresh and new and will be with us for some time. We will know the day it is right to begin the dismantle.
There have been other altars over the years, for a friend, an aunt, an uncle, and always an ongoing altar in my meditation space. Other shrines or altars might be for a beloved pet, a job loss, a physical shift with a move or in health. And there are altars for joy, new life, new relationships, all the little ones that spontaneously form from the bits we collect on a dresser top or bedside table. In many ways, in our humanness, we are natural collectors and many objects that are chosen are from nature. Each of my altars/shrines for these loved ones display the small objects of physical existance that help me ground in the reality of this particular life. They are the tactile bits of a personality, a spirit, a soul, that help me to connect for some time to the loved one’s energy, smell, and feel, anchoring me in my body and into the earth.
The secret sauce to any altar/shrine space that we create is in the intention, the choosing of the objects, and the awareness of what meaning they have within us. The symbols we imbue with the loved one’s memory help us to understand and value the life they have lived. As can be seen from these five shrines above, the items are random, some fun and frivolous with others more heart centered in faith, but they all speak of a love story that was lived out with the one who is missing from this physical world. I see myself in what I have chosen, as the items speak to our relationship and are reflections of my own inner life. They represent the story of one who has impacted my walk on this earth, be they in loving or in challenging ways, and brought meaning and enhanced the world within which I live. I stand before each altar gazing at what is displayed, feeling sadness in my loss, allowing my tears when they come forth, and trusting the inner smile that might arise at the memory. This space also offers me a place to feel my anger, resentment or any other troubling emotion that needs and asks for expression. It becomes the sacred container for all of it.
When it comes to the day when all the items are put away, there might be an inner sigh, a smile, a recognition that this life has meaning, has consequence, has touched my heart and soul in ways that are now integrated into my being. My soul is larger for the effort. My being expands in the awareness and compassion for the life lived. The relationship expands as the symbols create a narrative that is imbued with meaning.
Conversely, I might find that when I remove the shrine, I feel deep within me that there is more to come. The objects go away, or narrow down, but I still have more understanding that needs time to be realized. I draw comfort in knowing that I have a lifetime to be in relationship with the memory of the loved one and healing may come in a totally different way, on a totally different day. There is no timeline in grief only a spiral that moves and flows and allows, as I journey forth. As long as I lean into the grief as it arises, I can trust that it will work with me; it will have its way with me until that story, my story, feels complete.