Just after Christmas, my 91-year old mother collapsed and disappeared into the fog of dementia, suddenly unreachable despite her body being still alive, and still here. And I began a long, slow submersion into grief that seemed, at times, to be dragging me down into the darkness where my mother had gone. Because she was alive, it seemed completely wrong to mourn for my missing mother.
So I became busy instead. I stepped in and became the advocate for her care, the organizer of her visitors, the person whom her doctors and nurses called first rather than my father who was arguably more grief-stricken than me. The busyness helped fill my waking hours with calendars, discussions about care, creating and managing lists of tasks, writing detailed emails to my siblings and nephews. It also intruded on my nights, waking me up with sudden jolts of fear that I had forgotten something important that I needed to look into right that very minute. I worried that mom was inside herself, able to think clearly, but unable to communicate. I wanted someone to tell me how she felt, what she wanted.
I wanted tools to help me understand and manage my grief. It was only after about a month of the frantic busyness and restless nights, interspersed with hours of sitting with her at the hospital and then in a nursing facility that I began to realize that the “tools” I needed were already in my hands: knitting needles and yarn.
When I was first with my mother at the hospital, she was agitated and upset so I wasn’t able to read the books or magazines I’d brought. But one day, I decided to bring a familiar chemo hat pattern and knitting supplies to my vigil. They would be something I could drop when necessary and pick back up easily, something I could do mindlessly. I wanted to feel I was being “useful,” a feeling I knew that comes from knitting for charity. Even if I could not “fix” what was happening to my mother, I could at least make something useful for someone in need.
Over the days, I become aware of how calm I became when doing what I had thought of as “mindless knitting.” As my hands moved over and over the pattern, my attention focused on the balletic movements of each stitch being formed, the yarn sliding so sinuously in and out of the stitches, the little glimpses of the needle tips peeking out at me, all keeping rhythm with the sound of the needles touching each other. I visualized how the hat would cover a chemo patient’s head with warmth and how they might feel the love that I had imbued each stitch.
While knitting beside my mother, I felt, rather than thought about her. I felt deep love for her, not the fearful concern or anguished failure I had felt while advocating for, or trying to regulate her medical condition. Somehow, this “mindless” knitting became mindful, and helped me reach a peaceful place that allowed me to recognize the abiding connection we shared as mother and daughter, a love that existed beyond intelligible conversations or the state of her body. I had a feeling of being a “life companion,” accompanying my mother, and honored to be witnessing this stage of her life rather than turning away in fear that I was failing her in every way.
Even when I was told that my mother was “transitioning” to death two months ago, my daily knitting kept me in a state of peaceful acceptance where I believed—and felt, especially when mindfully knitting—that I would never lose my mother entirely; I was just losing her physical presence in my life. Our connection, the love I felt for her, would survive her leaving this world. In my calm state of mindful knitting, I could name and appreciate the gifts she had given me, and I could thank her, feeling she had heard my gratitude.
Much has been written about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. Betsan Corkhill has studied and written about the therapeutic benefits of knitting in her book, Knit for Health & Wellness. “The rhythm of the [knitting] movements facilitates a sense of deep calm and the meditative-like state so widely attributed to knitting. It is instantaneously familiar and comforting… Entering a meditative-like state appears to happen as a natural side effect of knitting,” she writes.
What helped me face the grief over my mother’s decline and eventual loss is exactly the meditative-state that arises when knitting mindfully. In that state, I was able to notice and pay attention to feelings of grief, helplessness, and fear without being overwhelmed by those emotions. It felt safe to be attuned to myself in the here and now, but also connected to a river of life and love that was greater than me, eternal. “Being mindful allows the griever to feel and observe pain without being swallowed by it. The act of being present with pain, being mindfully observant, is healing,” writes Ashley Davis Bush, LICSW, author of Transcending Loss.
When I knit mindfully at my mother’s side or at home, I hold her close in my heart. I feel as though she can somehow know my thoughts now far better than she could understand my words when she was fully alive. I travel back and forth in time as I knit row after row, dipping into the past, seeing things I hadn’t noticed before, paying attention to how my body feels as the memories flow on. Each stitch as it forms seems like a precious pearl, a beautifully constructed knot that holds a truth and a connection to not just my past and my mother’s past, but to knitters further back in time, their hands making these same movements, creating these truths.
I’m not saying that I totally eradicated my pain, grief and fear through knitting. But rather, intentional, mindful knitting provided me a peaceful place that allowed me to be present with the full spectrum of emotions without being carried away by intensity of the emotions. I’ve come to understand that loss and grief are the price we pay for loving, that life is filled with losses and grief.
Now, into the 5th month of my mother’s disappearance, I am knitting socks, and still grieving the loss of her vibrancy from my life. I wish I could talk with her to apologize for the heartaches I caused her though my rebellious life. And to thank her for the many ways she showed her love for my siblings and me, things for which I never adequately thanked her. I have connected to my mother’s creative, spunky, individualistic core in a way I did not in life, and realized the extent to which she imbued me with these instincts.
I am sure that deep in her apartness and silence, she knows that I am here with her as I knit. That she can feel at last the love and appreciation that flows to her from me. And that she likes the soft pink socks I’m finishing. “Who would ever have thought you’d like pink?” she would say as she ran her hands over them. “You were such an anti girlie-girl. Now look at you and your pretty pink socks!”
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Suggestions for Knitting Through Grief
1.) Knit mindfully. Knit while breathing in and exhaling consciously, and while bringing your attention to the stitches you are making. Observe how the stitches are formed, to the ballet of the needle tips entwining the yarn. Feel how the pace and rhythm of your knitting effects your breathing and how your whole body becomes one with your knitting. Resource: The Knit Om blog by Becky Stewart explores wellness and personal growth through meditation and contemplative knitting.
2.) Employ a mantra. Use a silently repeated mantra to ease you into a meditative state as you knit. Perhaps use the words, ‘in,’ around,’ ‘through’, and ‘off’ as you form each stitch. “Quietly repeating these words… encourages the mind into a meditative-like state—into the flow of the moments,” writes Corkhill.
3.) Knit for charity. “Knitting for those more in need than yourself can dramatically change your perspective on life,” according to Corkhill. “It can subtly change your thinking—you become aware that you have the ability and power to improve the lives of those worse off than yourself, and in doing, your own.”
Helpful Charity Knitting Sites
Warm Up America!
Volunteers knit or crochet small squares and then others join them together. Warm Up America distributes warm afghans, caps and other items to tens of thousands of people, thanks to the generosity of knitters and crocheters around the country.
Provide love, a sense of security, warmth and comfort to children who are seriously ill, traumatized, or otherwise in need through the gifts of new, handmade blankets and afghans. With chapters in all 50 states, Project Linus continues to grow. Blankets are collected locally and distributed to children in hospitals, shelters, social service agencies, or anywhere that a child might be in need of a big hug.
Knitted Knockers Charities provides free Knitted Knockers to women who have had a mastectomy. Knitted Knockers are a light comfortable knitted prosthetic that when placed in a bra has the shape and feel of a real breast, and are more comfortable than silicone prosthetic breasts.
Halos of Hope
Halos of Hope seeks donations of knitted hats that will provide comfort to hundreds of cancer centers, hospitals and oncology offices, and to thousands of cancer patients nationwide. They provide patterns and distribution of hats for chemo patients.
Your Local Hospital
Many hospitals welcome donations of chemo hats and NICU baby hats and booties. To find out what your local hospital might want, call them. I volunteer at a local hospital in the Washington, D.C. area with Project Knitwell. Project Knitwell volunteers provide knitting instruction and quality materials in an effort to foster wellness, comfort, and community among those served. I knit with patients, one to one, but also with a group of patients, volunteers and staff and find many benefits of knitting in a group.
“There is no doubt that enjoying supportive social contact is good for you and there are numerous benefits to belonging to a group… Belonging is important. Knowing there is someone there in times of need is important. It gives you strength to live, to explore and enjoy life,” writes Betsan Corkhill.