Personal Totems

Three years ago today was the worst day of my life. I had flown to my parents’ home to travel back to Seattle with my ailing mother, as my parents were moving to Seattle. Even though she was quite ill, we had hope that she would continue her treatment in Seattle and have some more time. Instead, she got an infection and died the day after I arrived.

I remember waking up on my parents’ sofa the morning after she died, having had a horrendous night of fitful sleep, the kind where your consciousness won’t fully switch off as it’s constantly alerting you: Something horrible has happened. It was sunny that morning after, a perfect June morning, with flowers blossoming in the back yard and dappled light falling through the trees and birds singing cheerfully. But all I felt was a dense heavy ache. The word felt like a new, unbearable place.

I have learned in the past three years that all the cliches about grief are true. I have explored my own loss through confessional blog posts like this one. I have seen my children be born and grow and have yearned for my mother to see them too. But I have also learned how comforting the artifacts of our culture have been in dealing with her loss. Perhaps it’s trite, but I have found that my mother has remained in my life by way of these artifacts. I feel her presence in movies, music, documentaries, books, even radio shows, whether they are ones we enjoyed together or not.

She is in fact everywhere: I can summon up an image of how she would have reacted to a raunchy joke or a delicious dessert. I even look in the mirror and see her face within my own. Her mouth, when she was angry, is like my mouth when I’m angry. The furrowing between my brows is like hers. I am so grateful for these pieces of her that live on. And I’m especially grateful that time has taken the sharp edges off her loss so that I can appreciate these reminders without the overwhelming density of grief that was there at the start.

There’s an essence I’m struggling to express here. I think that there are little things—trinkets, facial expressions, memories, stories, even moods—that are profoundly meaningful to me, both for their inherent value and for their ability to connect me with what I’ve lost. I’ve started calling these things totems for lack of a better word. Their presence in my life is about as close as I come to feeling religious. They are glittering, shining portals into something mysteriously, magically transcendent.

I wouldn’t pretend to have the answers to something as profound as how to make sense of grief. But having had three years to sit with my loss, I can say that every little totem makes me feel connected to my mother and also to something larger than myself. I feel myself being sewn into a patchwork of some very large quilt that I cannot really see but feel comfort in knowing is there, including me in its design.


Today I’m wearing what has become a favorite totem: one of my mom’s necklaces. It’s a stylized tree with the famous Anne Frank quotation on a silver sheet behind the tree: I still believe that people are really good at heart. I’m not sure what I believe about the nature of people, and to be honest my faith in humanity has been greatly tested these past few years. But I do think that, in spite of so much ugliness and cruelty in our world, there is so much that is soft and warm and glittering.


2 thoughts on “Personal Totems

  1. Ellen, your post recharged me on a late night trying to recover from a long day. Two deaths today. I saw two girls lose their mother, and another mother lose her daughter. I hope they each find shiny totems that connect them to the mystical powers of remembrance.

    Liked by 1 person

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