Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I had a totally different topic in mind to write about tonight, something that had been lingering on my mind since this morning, but, such as grief always goes, I was overcome by emotion on my way home from work this afternoon and soon found myself in a heap on the sofa, clutching Hudson’s ashes in one hand and the plaster mold of her right hand in the other.

This is not a scenario I ever imagined. This may sound ridiculous—who ever pictures such a thing? But truly, not even after Hudson died did I imagine that I would ever feel such an intense need to hold her ashes in my arms, to clutch them to my chest and wail over them.

When my mother died, we were all surprised and puzzled by her decision to have her ashes interred in a columbarium at a church to which she did not even belong. The church was in the bigger town near the small town where she grew up in Alabama and she had become close to the priest there while she was sick, but still, we were all a bit baffled as to why she would want her ashes there. Still, it did not matter much to me, because to me, her ashes were just that: ashes. I never had any desire to visit them, for they were not her, and just because her ashes were there, it did not mean she was there. I felt the same way when I thought about visiting people’s graves in cemeteries—wherever those people were, if they were anywhere after they died, they were not in the ground under a headstone. Certainly I did not need to be near my mother’s ashes in order to be near her. I began to think about what I would want done with my own ashes, and all my potential plans involved sprinkling them in places I loved, but not tying them to any particular spot with a marker. Anyone who wanted to visit with me could visit with me anywhere, is how I thought about it. I never wanted any child or loved one of mine to feel any kind of obligation to visit “me” in some particular place. And the idea of anyone keeping my ashes in their home seemed almost macabre to me.

I couldn’t feel more different about Hudson’s ashes. When Ed and I first started contemplating what to do with them, planting them with some trees (likely Christmas trees) in different places special to us seemed like the right thing. We thought we’d plant one at each of our father’s homes, one down at Belhaven where we were married ( even though she never got to visit there), and one at our permanent home in NC, whenever and wherever that home comes to be. That way we could visit “her” whenever we were at any of those places, and a natural way to celebrate her birthday (which is coming up far too quickly upon us—December 1 is three weeks from today) each year would be to decorate the tree at our home with winter treats for the birds that she loved so much.

At the beginning, I thought we’d go ahead and plant the three trees not at our permanent home (which does not yet exist) and sprinkle a portion of her ashes at each. For some reason, I was anxious to do this before this birthday rolled around so I could put my plan into place. After all, if not that, what could we possibly do to celebrate her birthday?

And yet her ashes still sit on the table in her playroom that holds many other pieces of our life with Hudson—photos of her, her favorite books, some of her fingerpainting, her Carolina pom poms, her stuffed lamb with a dishtowel laid over his belly, just how she used to put him down for a “nap.” Her ashes are still in the plastic bag in which they were delivered, closed with a twisty tie at the top. When we received them, they were inside a small white plastic box, cushioned by two puffs of natural fiber, and the box was inside a black shopping bag with the funeral home’s logo on it. Leaving them inside that impersonal box seemed wrong, and yet what container is ever right for your child’s ashes? We found a piece of pottery, a ceramic lidded jar that we had sitting around unused, with a small chip in the lid, and placed the bag in there, still cushioned by the fibers, and put them on her memorial table. I propped her Elmo up so that he has his arms wrapped around the jar. I guess I think of him as keeping her company. Even though I know she is not “there.”

So there her ashes sit. At least for right now, I cannot fathom having them anywhere else. I certainly can’t imagine them being anywhere but in the place that I live, whether in my house or under a tree in my yard.

I’ve taken her ashes out only a few times since she died, usually in moments of intense grief, where I just want to be with her so much and am faced with the reality that those ashes, and the few locks of hair that we cut from her head after she died, are the only pieces of her physical body that remain for me to touch. One time, I held the bag in my hand and turned it over and over. If you’ve never seen human ashes before, I apologize if this becomes rather graphic, but even after the cremation process, some pieces of bone often remain, not having been fully pulverized. On that day, I found myself turning the bag over and over, looking at each of the pieces of visible bone, trying so hard to find something that looked familiar, perhaps a part of a tooth, or the tip of her nose—I have no idea what I was looking for, really. I just wanted so desperately to see some part of her that I could recognize as her.

Today, as I walked home, I began imagining Hudson as an older child, so many moments that I would never witness. I pictured her with long pigtails like I had when I was a little girl, wearing denim overalls and smiling gleefully as she mastered riding her bike without training wheels. You can imagine that it only took a few seconds of this before I was in tears (do you ever get tired of hearing about how often I cry? I certainly get tired of how often it happens myself.) I cried openly on the whole walk home, not caring whether people passing by in their cars could see me. I got home and for no reason that I can explain, I was just drawn to her playroom in the back of the house. I took her ashes out of their jar and then opened up the keepsake box that holds the plaster cast of her hand (not a handprint mold, but a full 3-D cast of her hand, with her fingers cupped in natural, relaxed position), one of her locks of hair, and the handprints and footprints the PICU nurse made the night she died. I took out the cast of her hand and went into the living room, where I sat down on the sofa and clutched it and her ashes to my chest, sobbing for a very long time. I talked to her and said, for the millionth time, how much I miss her, how much I love her, how very sorry I am for her that she is not here to have so much fun with us, how precious her life is to us, and on and on. I slipped my right finger inside the cupped fingers of her hand, just like I used to hold her hand when we walked together. And for the first time, I kissed the plaster mold of her hand—I kissed each one of her little fingertips and put the whole thing up against my cheek, remembering what it felt like to hold her beautiful little hand when it was warm and pink and plump. I clutched both things to my chest again and just held them there. It was hard for me to get up and put them back in their places. This has never happened to me before. When I went to put the cast of her hand back, I pulled out the tiny Ziploc baggie that holds one of her locks of hair. One of the things I miss the most about Hudson’s daily physical presence is being able to sweep that beautiful hair off to the right side—it was too short to cut yet, but was getting long enough that it was in her face if I didn’t brush it aside. One of my favorite things to do was to run my hand over it and push it off her sweet face. It was always so soft to the touch. Even now, I sometimes make the same motion on a picture of her, brushing her hair out of her face, remembering the hundreds of times I did it when she was alive—so simple, so ordinary, and yet so intimate a gesture. I realized that it had never occurred to me before that I could open the baggie and actually touch her hair—until today, I’ve always just looked at it. Today, I opened the baggie and reached my hand in and stroked her hair. It felt just as soft as I remembered. I just never imagined that being able to hold and touch these physical remnants of Hudson’s body would ever be so important to me. I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Today, I really, really needed them. 

I still think we will plant a Christmas tree at our eventual permanent home in NC. And I still think we will decorate it every year on her birthday. Whether I’ll ever want to sprinkle her ashes underneath it remains to be seen. For now, they will stay right where they are, tucked inside a slightly imperfect piece of pottery, being hugged by Hudson’s Elmo, where I can take them out and hold them anytime I need to.


  1. Mandy,
    Thank you for sharing this. I am so sorry that you had such a painful afternoon.

    This exact topic has been on my mind a lot lately, as my father-in-law recently died of pancreatic cancer, and we've been thinking about what to do with his ashes. We have been cherishing certain objects of his, like his bronze medal, a magic trick, or a specific science experiment (he was a magician and a science teacher).

    But, the ashes seem to have some other meaning. You described it perfectly and have helped us realize that it's okay not to know what to do or at least to want to hold on to them longer.

    Thank you.

    Lisa S.

  2. Oh, Mandy. Your grief is so palpable, and I keep wanting to reach into your life and fix the terrible knot that has tangled there, as though if enough strangers weep with you we can change it for you.

    It seems utterly sensible to keep the ashes with you as long as you need them.


  3. Remember, Mandy... crying is good for your coronaries. And no, we don't get tired of hearing it.


    Kelly Seymour

  4. Mandy,

    Sorry seems so inadequate here, but what else could I possibly say.

    My husband and I lost both of our father's this year. Shortly after my fathe-in-law died my mother-in-law called me say she was sorry but she just couldn't bring herself to bury his dad's ashes. She had been planning to take them back to KY where the two of them were from and bury them in a family plot this fall. She said that having them with her in her house brought her great comfort and she just couldn't bear to part with them. At the time I thought that was kind of odd. When my dad died there were some strange decisions made regarding his internment, but I wasn't that bothered by them because I don't associate where he is buried with where he is. Now, I think I understand what my mother-in-law was trying to say. Having his ashes near her is comforting to her and she should keep them as long as she needs them.

    I am glad having Hudson's ashes near brought you some comfort today.

  5. Mandy, the depth of this leaves me without words and almost without breath. I am so, so thankful that there is some relic of her to touch--some semblance of a hand to hold. I wish so much it wasn't this way.

  6. I am utterly without breath. The words you give your grief are as powerful as any I have read. You courage in speaking them is so moving. As a witness to your sorrow, I can tell you that your story helps me know what kind of courage is possible. God bless you.

    I will celebrate December 1st as the day Hudson came to the world. I will celebrate the joyful gift of her life.

  7. Please leave an ash or two here in DC for us who love her here. :)

  8. Such a beautiful post.

    One small detail that struck me was your description of the stuffed lamb and dish towel. Leah does the same thing with a burp cloth. Leah and Hudson shared so many traits. We think of you and Hudson often and now these naps will have more meaning for us.

  9. Mandy, I don't think you've written anything as powerful as this. (((hugs))) You do exactly what you have to do to keep moving forward. You, Ed and Hudson are writing these rules. Listen to your heart. And I loved reading about the lamb and the dish towel. Mariann

  10. Mandy, December first is World AIDS Day. I always take that day off and do volunteer work with children who are HIV positive or have full-blown AIDS.
    Every December 1 from now on, as I begin my volunteer work, I will take a moment to speak Hudson's name and hold you all close in my heart.

    Your writing is so clear and painful. I wish more than anything right now that this were not your reality.
    Big, big hugs.

  11. I don't believe that there can be any rights or wrongs, rules or timelines when it comes to grief.

    Thinking of you, Shelley

  12. This post is so vivid, so rich, such a palpable and complete portrait of your grief. Thank you for sharing such an intimate, deep part of your experience. Your love for Hudson is incredible. I am so sad for you.

  13. Oh my goodness. I just found your blog and I can't express my sorrow for your loss, your journey, your attempt to understand what is happening to you and your family.

    I have been writing about my own loss, albeit not the loss of my child (my biggest fear, the one which you are facing right now), but the loss of my marriage (of which there is still hope).

    I have had a terrible 6 months, and you are welcome to read about my journey if you like. It has it's own set of pain, but I will say as painful as what I went thru - continue to go thru - is, at no way do I compare it to yours. The grief of losing a child must be immeasurable, insurmountable.

    I wish I could take the pain away from you.

    Just know that I, as well as others, are walking beside you. You are not alone.

    Thank you for sharing your journey. I am so moved.

    with love, andrea (from Raising Peanut)

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  15. Dearest Mandy,

    You wrap your arms around Hudson's ashes and stroke her hair as much as you need to. It doesn't need to make sense, it only needs to bring you a small ounce of comfort. Nothing and no one can ever replace her but sometimes we will do whatever we can to just come close, to just spend that energetic kind of time with our baby angels.

    I pull out the ultrasound photos of my lost angels and play specific songs when I want to be near her. It only needs to make sense to me.

    We are all wrapping our arms around you tightly. Holding you up in all of the moments you feel yourself falling.

    Love always,

  16. Today on the Metro, I noticed that a man standing near me was wearing a bracelet that said "One Good Thing." I asked if his bracelet was in remembrance of Hudson Chaney, and he told me his youngest daughter went to school with Hudson. Physical reminders of Hudson's life can still be found, even for those of us who did not know Hudson. I hope all the physical reminders you have of her life continue to bring you some comfort.

  17. I am still so close to this only nine weeks out....
    Cullen's ashes are in a beautiful box form Willowtree with a mother holding and infant on the front. LIke you I have looked at them a few times trying to 'find him' in that little plastic bag.
    I could never part with his ashes. They will stay with me until the day I no longer walk this earth and his body will them go with mine in whichever way I go.
    Thank you for this post sweet Mandy...
    love and grace always to you mamma....

  18. In other cultures and times mourning is allowed to be huge and loud and physical, women keening together over the loss of loved ones, cursing the gods and rending their clothes. THe way you write about this awful afternoon I want that kind of mourning for you. Where you can embrace Hudson's ashes and sob and cry and other people will do it with you and you don't have to be well behaved and apologize and calm down you can just curse the fates and cherish her objects and memories in any way that brings you comfort. And it's good for your coronaries!

    Erika Bailey

  19. My heart just breaks...the vision of you sitting on your couch grieving so deeply for Hudson is so vivid. Like so many of us have said so many times before, I wish I could take this pain away Mandy...or somehow lessen the hurt, but I can't. So I will continue to pray for you and Ed everyday for the rest of my life. Thank you for sharing your deepest thoughts with us Mandy...they are a constant reminder to me of how precious life is and to count my many blessing.

    Love you so much.

  20. You give grief life in ways we dare to know. We all miss her so; tears will forever fall upon her name. Love to All...Renee P.

  21. My heart breaks for you. I am sobbing reading this (and of course I don't even know you).

    I am so glad you have those physical rememberances of her body to hold on to as you grieve over her.