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Standing in his doorway, I was transported back to the hasty search for my son’s cold weather hiking base layers.
My frustration erupted in desperately pulling every article of 6-12-month-sized clothing from his dresser, throwing them on the middle of his bedroom floor, and efficiently digging through the heap.
Locating his merino silk thermal onesie and pants, ripping my son’s room into a tornado disaster in the process, I was relieved we could get him dressed in time for our planned morning hike in the Boulder Flatirons—and still have time to grab a local green chili breakfast burrito afterward.
The mess I created in the process was rationalized as an opportunity to reorganize his dresser, putting the rarely-if-ever worn items in storage.
Months later, the heap of baby-sized sweatpants, nature-themed T-shirts, fleece hoodies, mini flannels, and tiny socks were still in the center of the room. Looking up from the pile of clothes worn with memories coming to mind, the CPAP machine that was supposed to be the answer to his recent uncharacteristic bouts of illness stood between the window and his teal-colored crib. I felt my eyes glaze over, paired with an immediate wave of nausea and the now-familiar pit in my stomach, forcing me to close the door and walk downstairs.
Two months after our son, Leo’s, death, my husband and I were coming down from the shock and were now ravaged by unrelenting acute grief. Grief for his loss, but also grief for the implosion of our life in the home we just purchased, finally settling down in Colorado after relocating and spending the past couple years apartment-and-city-hopping. This was supposed to be our home.
For those who may not have read my former pieces on Leo, he was born with an ultra-rare form of dwarfism and was given a limited life expectancy of 1-5 years (if we were lucky), yet lived a healthy, awe-inspiring life to almost eight years. I’ll spare further details, as plenty more can be read here.
Reading The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, by Francis Weller, the below quote sparked inspiration.
“To alter the amnesia of our times, we must be willing to look into the face of the loss and keep it nearby. In this way, we may be able to honor the losses and live our lives as carriers of their unfinished stories. This is an ancient thought – how we tend the dead is as important as how we tend the living.”
The meaningful life we cultivated with Leo would be carried in our hearts moving forward. If we were going to stay in this home we purchased, with our dreams cut short, something needed to change in his bedroom.
I’d like to say I painstakingly folded the heap of clothing and thoughtfully placed each piece back into his dresser—but it was rather one big motion of me scooping the pile up like a construction backhoe, dumping it into a laundry basket, and placing it in his closet until further notice.
It was a ritualistic ripping off a Band-Aid. We were on our way to turning the room where our son slept into a cozy space we imagined he would love, and where we could connect with him going forward. A physical space we could use to honor him easily within our home was taking shape in our minds.
While Leo’s room is far from complete, we ended up creating an awesome little corner, keeping baby steps in mind.
My husband and I have big plans of writing children’s books in his honor, and this corner will be the perfect place to get started with brainstorming our visions. As well as simply feeling a bit of the connection to him that we so direly crave on a visceral level.
Rather than sharing my step-by-step process, my intention here is to reference what we included to hopefully inspire others interested in making an intentional space in their home to honor their dearly departed, even if on a much smaller scale.
1. Choosing a specific happy memory as the overall theme helps set a nostalgic tone.
For Leo’s, it came to us without effort. We were in Crested Butte, Colorado, last fall at peak aspen color change. Pulling our camper-van off at a random trailhead along Kebler Pass (one of the top fall foliage roads in Colorado), we enjoyed the most beautiful hike with 360-degree panoramic views completely to ourselves. It was pure magic. The Maroon Peaks in the distance, towering pines, shimmering golden aspen trees with their leaves dancing above in the light breeze and filtering sunlight through to the soft dirt trail. And the bluest, cloudless sky I’ve ever seen. Leo giggling, grinning, and kicking his feet (his version of hiking), as my husband and I took turns carrying him in our arms.
2. Use paint inspired by this memory to anchor the space.
Even a small accent square, circle, or arch in a single color will define and convey honor to your person or pet. In Leo’s room, we designed a mini mural with geometric shapes, something I’ve done in other areas of our home, keeping the colors from our specific memory in mind. Staying true to your general aesthetic vibe is important so it cohesively compliments your home versus overwhelmingly standing out like a shrine. Purchasing mini sample pots of paint from your local hardware store saves on waste and allows you to easily purchase multiple colors.
3. Photos are an obvious addition, but not going overboard is key.
We have thousands of Leo photos but chose to only include two, both taken from our special memory. In addition, we included a photo of the trail and a close-up of a mini grove of three aspen trees, symbolically seen on this hike. On the adjacent wall, we included a photo of another special memory: three mule deer that appeared just feet from us out of nowhere when we were enjoying a sunrise in solitude at Zion National Park, one week after Leo’s passing.
4. Sentimental objects or art that evoke happy thoughts of them is another great addition.
We can all get creative here, especially considering the potential for specific art available by local artists or via Etsy. Did they have a favorite flower, food, place, animal, or activity? A painting or some other form of art purchased in their honor brings warmth to the heart when seen.
5. Words are powerful.
Many of us have songs, quotes, or poems that remind us of our loved one. Choosing to include something that makes us smile when thinking of them, opposed to feeling the crushing despair from their absence, sparks genuine love. We had a John Muir quote framed in our camper-van that reminded us of Leo, so we opted to symbolically include it here instead.
6. Including a texture of some sort helps soften the space.
If they had a favorite color, adding a small woven wall hanging can be a nice touch. Another option is a plant. I’m personally a fan of wall-mounted plants or hanging them in macramé. If your loved one was cremated, you could even place a bit of their ashes in the soil.
7. My last suggestion is a written dedication to the space.
A good friend gave us the idea to write something to Leo on the wall and then paint over it, forever locking our words into what we’ll always look at as his room—whether we stay here forever or move away in the coming months. This 10×10 space will always be Leo’s room to us. My husband and I each wrote a short letter, letting him know how much we love him and encouraged him to visit often, then sealed it with golden-aspen-colored paint. It was tearful, beautiful, and cathartic more than anything. If writing on the wall isn’t your thing, writing a note and placing it behind a picture would be just as meaningful.
As I’m finishing writing this piece, sitting in the now-sacred corner of Leo’s room, my heart feels warm. Losing and grieving our loved ones, especially when they are taken too soon, is a brutal part of life. I’m grateful for this space to intentionally be in the “face of the loss and keep it nearby,” allowing me to “live my life as the carrier of Leo’s unfinished story,” as I think Francis Weller would put it.
It’s my true honor.
I’d love to hear if you’ve created something similar in your home or maybe if this has inspired you to! I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments.