Arts & Culture

How Mittens Can Help Us Understand Grief

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In recent days, humorous memes of Sen. Bernie Sanders and his mittens have brought us extra laughter on social media. We all need a little mirth amidst so much grief, anxiety, and unrest that we’ve experienced through 2020 and so far in 2021. Levity and cheerfulness can be therapeutic. Wisdom reminds us that “a cheerful heart is good medicine” (Prov 17:22). 

It’s powerful to consider how joyous laughter and reflective stories can work wonders. In fact, this social media trend reminded me of a tender story that my mother, Holly Hall-Pletcher, shared in the book we co-authored, Emoticonvervations: Working Through Our Deepest Place:

A small pair of black wool mittens, they were obviously intended for a young child’s tiny hands. The mittens, held together by a knit cord, amaze me. The stitches are so precise. The work looks perfect. My grandmother knit the mittens when she was just twelve years old. Now they are lovingly placed on our family Christmas tree each year. The tradition of using them as a tree decoration goes back as far as I can remember. There are many ornaments on our tree that have stories attached but the mittens are my favorite.

My grandmother, Lillian, was born in 1885. The oldest of five surviving children, she grew up in Bad Axe, Michigan. Her father was a burly German lumberjack, a good, hardworking man who spoke very little English. Her mother was a frail, petite woman from a proud English family in New York. They could trace their roots to the early Puritan colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

These were still rugged days for a family living in the “thumb” of the Michigan lumber region, and now Lillian’s dear mother was dying of pneumonia. Her grandmother and spinster aunt would eventually come from Buffalo, New York to help with the children. However, until they arrived, Lillian would shoulder the responsibility for her siblings. And remember, she was just twelve years old. As part of her intentional care, she knit mittens and socks for the children. In those days, knitting was not just a pleasant hobby. It was a necessity. All members of a family must be kept in warm wool socks, hats, and mittens to ward off the frigid Michigan winters.

I have often pondered what thoughts must have been going through my grandmother’s young mind as she knit. How much love and sorrow must have filled her heart as she grieved over her mother? To encounter so much grief at such an early age without many others around to help seems almost beyond my imagination. 

This profound experience of deep sorrow at such an early age must have provided early preparation for the endurance she would need many years later in facing the death of her toddler son. She and my grandfather served as missionaries in a remote jungle in Africa. One day, their child died quite suddenly in my grandmother’s arms. Thousands of miles from home, they had to face the death of their oh-so-loved firstborn without the solace of family or friends. Nevertheless, they faced that dark storm courageously and continued on with their work, wholeheartedly serving the Lord.

I inherited the small black pair of mittens the first Christmas after my own mother went home to be with the Lord. As I placed them on my Christmas tree, the family story that accompanied the mittens came to mind and was strangely comforting to me. That year, I decided that I would learn to knit. I would knit my tears and sorrow away just as Lillian must have done so many years ago. I thought of the many stories told by my mother over the years. My soul is rich with so many fond, loving memories of my parents and of family members that I never had the honor of meeting face to face. It is as if I knew each one of them, in spite of the fact that we never physically met, and I have loved them all.

As I reflect on this family history, I believe there are three takeaways from the story which we can all consider.

Don’t Shy Away from Grieving with Others

We are all walking through the unimaginable right now. We grieve with our families, coworkers, fellow churchgoers, and neighbors. For many of us, we are tempted to play it tough and try to stay cool, calm, and collected. Kristin Brown urges us: “Don’t feel ashamed to show your grief.” It really is okay to unravel, to let others know when you are hurting.

Find Your Own “Mittens To Knit” 

While actual knitting is not for everyone, we all can find something that proves extra-creative, productive, and therapeutic. Perhaps it’s restoring a piece of antique furniture or working puzzles. Maybe your own “knitting” is writing a novel or building a new virtual network with the aim of stronger client friendships. Whatever your mittens, go ahead and get knitting. Go there with great gusto.

Tell More Stories 

Do stories, shared over multiple generations, morph in color and emotional texture over time? Of course. However, these slight variations and enhancements do not lessen the value of sharing an oral tradition. Numerous generations of families have valued oral tradition and kept family history alive by verbally sharing. While committing these tales to the written and digital page is certainly important, so is the spoken story that embeds in the hearts and minds of our children, friends, and coworkers. 

Such great stories can be quickly recalled by memory in order to comfort, instruct, build character, and even amuse us around the dinner table. They can also give each of us a wonderful sense of love, confidence, and genuine belonging. These qualities prove essential in journeying through grief and discovering a joy that runs much deeper than the laughs we’ve all had over Bernie’s mittens on social media.

Editor’s Note: This post is adapted from EmotiConvervations: Working Through Our Deepest Places, by John Pletcher and Holly Hall-Pletcher. Published with permission.

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