Memorials and Mementos Hold Deep Meaning for Caregivers




    The old soldiers from our local American Legion Honor Guard fired their rifles into the brittle blue sky over my father's grave. It was December in North Dakota, and the cemetery was knee deep in snow. These men were not much younger than the man they helped bury. Earlier, I had marveled at their dedication to a fellow soldier as I watched them march on aging, unsteady feet, through the snow that lead to the burial site.


    The flag was removed from Dad's coffin, ceremoniously folded in a tight triangle and handed to my barely comprehending mother, who had stayed in the funeral home's car with the door open. She would have needed a wheelchair to get closer to the grave and she didn't want to move out of the warm car. Part of her seeming lack of comprehension was dementia, part denial and grief.

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    After we all had climbed back into the funeral cars, one of the funeral home attendants brought to me six shell casings. He apologized for not finding more, but they were buried deep in the snow. I was amazed that they found as many as they did.


    After he put the casings, still smelling of gun powder, into my cupped hands, I immediately thought, "No, this is right. Six casings. Six Grandchildren. This was meant to be."


    So the six shell casings from a beloved Grandfather's military funeral were divided - one for each grandchild. It was only fitting that they have this military memento to remember him by.  His last ten years were spent in dementia hell after a surgery meant to correct complications from a World War II brain injury went horribly wrong. Dad went into surgery with some fluid building up behind scar tissue from the injury. He came out of surgery totally demented - a paranoid man with an unwelcome voice in his head we came to call Herman.


    Upon his death, his spirit had been released from his damaged body. I felt him back with me - whole - and hoped that the grandchildren could feel some of that, too. I had no doubt that my mother's death would soon follow. And it did, five months to the day.


    As we go through life, we associate objects with people we love. Thus, heirlooms passed down through family generations, heavy with history and emotion, are treasured by the recipients.  I have a ring my grandmother gave me when I was thirteen years old. She was a teenager when it had been given to her. The delicate little ring has three round beads of coral interspersed with two pearls - my birth stone. I treasure that ring, and always will. It signifies my relationship with Grandma Bradley.


    The Alzheimer's Foundation of America, known as the AFA, created the Quilt To Remember project for many reasons. This quilt, found online at, symbolizes the serious nature of Alzheimer's disease and the effect it has on so many lives. When you go to the site, you can see a video of the 2008 tour, and you can add a square to honor your loved one, if you choose. You will see a list of the many reasons the quilt was created. The one that resonates most for me is to "Bring comfort and empowerment to caregivers, providing a therapeutic outlet for emotions."


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    The need to memorialize a person's legacy - to remember lives lived and lost - is profound. I believe it is part of what makes us human.


    My mother was a wonderful cook, as was her mother.  Mom also inherited from her mother the love of setting a beautiful table. I have her "good dishes." And each holiday, as I set the table with that English china, I feel Mom's presence.


     I cook the holiday meal as she did - one of the reasons my younger sister enjoys it so much. She wants to learn from me, as I, the eldest daughter by many years, had learned at the side of our mother. No measurements. No recipes. You season by taste and color. You put in another pinch of salt add another generous blob of butter. Mom is always by my side as I cook this traditional meal. Both of our parents are at the table - in spirit, yes - but physically, as well, as we eat from the rose patterned plates and drink from the delicate crystal goblets, the very ones we used when we were children and our parents cooked and carved.


    Physically joining or rejoining those we have loved and lost, or are losing through a disease such as Alzheimer's, is an important ritual. Family heirlooms are actually memorials. There is healing power in ritual and in memorials.  For those adding squares to the Alzheimer's Quilt, the act of physically remembering their loved one helps them cope and heal from within. The act symbolizes eternal memory, showing the world that  the loved one will never be forgotten.



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Published On: September 08, 2008