Stitch by stitch: thoughts on grief and hope

Five years ago, in the first winter of our relationship, I knit my lover a pair of mittens.

They were perfect.

I bought the wool, hand-spun, from a vendor at our Farmer’s Market on Broadway in New York City. It was a blustery October day, and I bought more of that grey yarn than I needed. And so began the meticulous process of crafting something for the one you love: Edging the gloves with a simple ribbing, two by two. Making them fingerless, with a top that flipped down. Fastening on antique leather buttons. Inside one of the flaps, I sewed a tag, upon which was neatly printed, “Handmade by Alison J. Killeen.”

He loved them, and even better, he used them. Over the years, predictably, they began to wear. The neat little slit in the thumbs, meant for texting and for pulling out his metro card, was the first to go. And so I unraveled the tops of the thumbs and re-knit them, reinforcing them with a stronger thread. But it was an impermanent solution. The palms wore thin, first from grasping at railings on the train, and later, the steering wheel of the car. Moths munched on their edges while they sat idle in summer. Last winter, they found their final days as the thumb slits tore again and unraveled before I took care to mend them, my lover’s triangle-tipped thumbs exposed to the cold.

This fall, five years later, using what was left of the hardy grey wool, I knit him a second pair of mittens, almost identical to the first. Perhaps it was sentimental, but before we discarded them, we held a little ritual for the first pair in our kitchen. I held the mittens in my hands, and my lover held my hands in his. Together, we spoke of the warmth they had provided to the wearer, of what objects they had held between their palms, of all the coffee spills they had endured. As we examined the wear and tear the years had brought to these woolen miracles, they began to whisper of all that has lapsed since we first found one another.

It seems to me that time passes so illegibly. Despite our best attempts to keep things just as they are, in the end, we are helpless to the powers of the universe: to gravity, to change, to chaos, to love.

Most years in November I settle in for the long winter, reveling in my double-pointed needles and indigo-blue dusks. I cut the nights with candlelight, quell the snow with stardust, calm the cold with steaming hot tea.

But this year has been different. This year not only have the nights been long, but my heart is long as well, stretched low as an anchor grazing the bottom of the sea. For whatever reason, though no one close to me has been in danger, I am feeling the losses around me more keenly. A friend’s husband dies, then another, and another. Yet another friend’s mother is slowly losing her battle with cancer. A loved one struggles with addiction. Relationships around me disintegrate and break. And the dark blue night thickens, exposing a bruised and ashen world.


via New York Times

Then last Friday, in Newtown, Connecticut, a gunman overtook sweet Sandy Hook Elementary School, and like the rest of the country I am blindsided. I am struck dumb by the absence of mercy, by the presence of carnage, by the hot iron of an expired rifle, the tiny bodies riddled with bullets, the silence and the sobs, the blood, the innocence, the flesh, the grief.

Time trods on. The night expands. A star moves across the deep. Our hearts break, our worlds implode, and we are left to ask: what will come of this?

Part of the pain of tragedy is the need we humans have to seek out the meaning in suffering. As one who finds little existential comfort in “eternal life”, I look for a way to make meaning of what is happening in the here and the now. Even a father who believes his child will live on in paradise might not be comforted by his belief. The child is still gone, and he is still left to sift through what to make of a world in which 20-year-old men kill six-year-old girls, and nineteen other children, besides.

In the face of such tragedy, even hope at times is too much to ask. It is too much to petition grief to turn about so sharply, to reverse the path of mourning, to wait for hope, to hope for life.

No, I want mending of a more earthly kind. As a knitter darns a tear, as a physician sutures a wound, so must we go about the process of grief. Slowly and methodically we go, taking care to don the thimble and pin the fabric. Perhaps we set down our work for a time and come back another day. Perhaps we rip it out and start again. We work, knowing our piece will never be as whole as it was when it was new. We work, knowing that it will be prone to tearing again, even in the same spot in which we mend. But the thread and needle must keep working, ever tenderly, slowly onwards, if our hearts are ever to beat again.

The deepest, bluest night of the year is but days away. With the winter solstice will come the shifting of our planet’s tilt, a change so incremental we will hardly notice it, but it will be massive in its power. Such a tiny step lengthens the day by mere minutes, but it has the power to alter the seasons, to melt ice and ignite fire, turn branch to leaf, seed to sprout. Yes, we will hardly notice it. But its shift will lay the groundwork for our whole world to change.

I don’t know how the parents and children of Newtown will fare in the coming days and years, and what awaits our country in the coming months is yet to be seen. What I do know is that our first task must be to tend to our grief, for by threading the needle, by tilting a twirling planet, we act out our trust that hope will return to us one day. Perhaps hope is found just in putting down that very first stitch.

79 Comments on “Stitch by stitch: thoughts on grief and hope”

  1. Steph says:

    This is lovely, Al.

  2. Maggie Red says:

    This is so beautiful. Congratulations on crafting a lovely piece of writing.

  3. I love the line, “It seems to me that time passes so illegibly.” This whole post is beautiful and you said what I wanted to say, but I was having such a hard time finding the right words.


  4. Emmy says:

    What a beautifully written piece, so eloquently put .

  5. Beautifully written. I feel a huge sense of loss this year – mostly indirect losses but just so much loss. I feel your written expression because it seems different…hurts more…makes me wonder constantly. Thank you for sharing and congrats on FP!

  6. Really remarkable! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Joyce says:

    I’m glad to see this was Freshly Pressed. It is an apt tribute, so poignant and understated.

  8. sportsjim81 says:

    Sometimes a perfectly written piece such as this is the first stitch in the mending process. It’s quite something when the perfect combination of words and phrases, sentences and paragraphs, turn into a cohesive sentiment that genuinely helps others. Well done, well done indeed.

  9. RJ says:

    Such a lovely post.

  10. Reblogged this on TEES AND MORE and commented:
    so sad :( #prayfornewton

  11. marymtf says:

    We’re all forever looking to ‘make meaning of what is happening in the here and the now.’ But trying to make meaning of an insane moment is impossible which is why we will never succeed. Whenever I unpick my jumpers I find them fraying at the shoulder seams. I’m having to forever mend the holes that I make. I loved your post and your metaphor. So gentle, so sweet.

  12. Shannon says:

    Beautiful writing, honest, painful, and perfectly crafted. Thank you.

  13. I love your post but do not believe anything will change and Obama must make a date with destiny at least once a year for the rest of his presidency.

    Does America have the power to tilt? I hope so but think not.

  14. redzepp77 says:

    A deeply profound piece of writing.
    I look forward to reading more of your work on less haunting subjects.

  15. Hopefully, we bloggers can start the healing through our words. This is a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing.

  16. Tech Tard says:

    So beautifully written. Amazing.

  17. Beautifully written.

  18. jroycroft says:

    I commend, and thank you for not politicizing last weeks tragedy.

  19. segmation says:

    Perhaps if we all could knit and keep on knitting, and remember the children, that this will keep their spirits in our hearts!

  20. cannopener says:

    This is very moving. I have shared on the facebook page:
    Hope that’s okay!

  21. shoes says:

    Such beautiful writing about life, big and small, and the events that leave us reeling.

  22. jaynefranks says:

    I love the way you crafted this article. The imagery is perfect, and the message poignant.

  23. Beautiful. Thank you.

  24. From one knitter to another; perfectly crafted with just the right tension to create a warm and comfortable fabric filled with love and hope.

  25. optimisticgladness says:

    Thank you for this. I need to read this.

  26. I was hesitant to read this because the WordPress crew labeled this “more grief” but read it anyway. This was exquisitely written and you made your feelings so very real to me. Yes we do each have to tend to our grief about this and that is okay. Thank you!

  27. Treanor says:

    This is beautiful, and from the heart. I will think of this, and Newtown, and the future, on the “deepest, bluest night.” I also recommend a poem by one of our members, Sandra Seaton Michel, The Peacemakers.

  28. idogiveanf says:

    Heart-tugging… and yet no matter how sad nor painful the only way to go is forward… we really are uncertain what is beyond there, but we are driven by love, by faith, and by hope. Nice post!

  29. diannegray says:

    Such a beautiful piece of writing. I’m so glad this was freshly pressed otherwise it would never have enriched my life…

  30. Reblogged this on Gimp Stories and commented:
    a deeply touching post, that manages to grasp much of what seems important at this moment.

  31. I’ve just started blogging with my daughters and finding this post was confirmation for me that our writing together is crucial! Thank you. :)

  32. robelletrist says:

    very well said. beautiful piece you’ve written there. :-)

  33. uglynovel says:

    Good post, thanks for sharing.

  34. Serenity says:

    Lovely. Very sad and yet very appropriate for the time we are in. Your post was very touching. I loved how you wove in the knitting of those gloves to the horrific tragedy to poignant end. Bravo! God bless and Merry Christmas!

  35. This post is so beautiful and comforting. I can sense how it must be for the grief-stricken families in Connecticut who lost their little children. Probably, no matter how hard we try, we cannot even ‘imagine’ about the extent of pain those families are going through. It aches. It really does.
    I have posted about the tragedy, my views in my blog here.

    I wish people share what they feel about it, after all when you share misery, it tends to lessen and we realize that this is collective grief. God bless!

  36. […] Stitch by stitch: thoughts on grief and hope. […]

  37. I have just started following your blog and find your words so comforting and moving. As I grapple with the right words to say on this issue, I find your post which does it so well. Thank you so much! I look forward to more conversations!

  38. Reblogged this on billylazuardi89 and commented:
    What’s Happen

  39. littlewing says:

    This is a great post on uncertainty. I think the key is to embrace the moments we do have instead of worrying about what may happen

  40. bagley777 says:

    “Perhaps hope is found just in putting down that very first stitch.” I love this! So meaningful. We all seem to want to wait for someone else to take that first step, but if we want anything to change, we need to take things into our own hands. (The best we can – one little step at a time!)

  41. Megan Olson says:

    I really appreciate that you chose to write about Sandy hook and the babies we lost. I used to be a kindergarten teacher so every time I sat down to express how I felt about this horrendous act of cruelty I was haunted by the faces that I once protected. What if it had been my classroom that a man with a gun had walked into? What if it had been my little students? The thought makes it too painful to write about but reading about it and knowing that our nation is grieving for them and their families is cathartic. Thank you for your beautiful words.

  42. Megan Olson says:

    I felt cowardly after I left my last post. I decided to force myself to write about Sandy Hook. I don’t typically blog about my feelings. My blog is intended to help me grow as a fiction writer. But, this time, I think it was important to do it. Thanks for the push.

  43. Kris F says:

    Gently inscribed in the heart. Congrats on FP, so richly deserved. Thank you for a lovely post.

  44. Carolina says:

    Beautiful. Thank you for sharing <3

  45. noahbody123 says:

    A deeply moving, soul searching attempt at gaining understanding and a handle on grief. You brought tears to my eyes.

  46. vkrouse says:

    Reblogged this on Vickie's Blog and commented:
    great writing

  47. Beautifully written. Thank you.

  48. Dounia says:

    This is so beautifully written. I’m happy it was freshly pressed so that myself and many other readers could find it. Thank you for putting in words many of the things I’m feeling, but couldn’t find how to say.

  49. Dan G says:

    Thank You for this. You are a brilliant writer and I appreciate how you express yourself. As a father I am without words to express my sorrow for all of these families affected by this senseless tradgedy.

  50. I am optimistic. In the face of tragedy, the survivors and the witnesses are changed forever. That we know.

    However, just like those survivors from Hitler’s Nazi concentration camps, the horror of the rape of Nanking, or Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the bomb was dropped, or at the fire bombing of Tokyo and Dresden where innocent children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles were killed just for being different or citizens on the wrong side of a war, the survivors will move on living each day one day at a time with an understanding that there are no guarantees that come with birth and the expiration date may be any moment.

    History is riddled with these stories of life ending. We are all witnesses to this horror. We all hope it won’t happen to us–that we won’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time, that we will live to be older than the average.

  51. Megan says:

    This piece gave me goosebumps and brought tears to my eyes. You have so eloquently captured the feelings of grief and raised serious questions and issues we must face collectively as a society. Thank you for posting this. I’m very happy you were “freshly pressed” so your words and feelings and poetic imagery can reach a wider audience. Thank you for this.

  52. happyface313 says:

    This is so beautifully written. I am deeply touched. I can just picture how beautifully you must knit :-)

  53. Kimberly says:

    This was beautiful! I hope someday I could write as perfect as this.

  54. Beautifully crafted and wonderfully written. I was very moved at how solidly this was (for lack of a better phrase) put together. Absolutely lovely and agonizing at the same time.

  55. This is beautiful and so true. Thank you for sharing your words…so eloquently written. :-)

  56. sandyssewon says:

    I love your words told around the knitting of the mittens. Needlework soothes my soul and your combination is beautiful. Sandy Tracy

  57. Others have already said it but this is wonderful, the first section especially beautiful.

  58. Tar-Buns says:

    So evocative and well crafted. You read my mind and gave these thoughts life.
    Congratulations on being FPd! Well deserved!

  59. dolcesuono says:

    Perfect. Thank you for repeating out loud what my heart has been saying since the tragedy happened.

  60. MP says:

    Very beautifully written. Your piece spoke many of my emotions surrounding the recent tragedy (so tragic that I cannot even write out names or places). It also reminded me of the times I’ve learned about patience and steadiness and the value of just being able to live on each day successfully.

  61. Wonderfully put! Thank you for sharing this with us

  62. neonspndx says:

    Thank you for writing something so honest and true. I think anyone who has every felt tragedy understands and relates to this post. Of course it is especially relevant to the current tragedy being experienced by the nation and most of all by those in Newtown.

  63. We are helpless to love, chaos, change… very poetic.

  64. J. Palmer says:

    Reblogged this on Angel Takes Flight and commented:
    Just another ordinary person’s thought post.

  65. eremophila says:

    Reblogged this on Eremophila's Musings and commented:
    Beautifully thoughtful writing.

  66. Katy Pye says:

    Never stop writing.

  67. Katy Pye says:

    Reblogged this on Katy Pye and commented:
    A beautifully written, healing piece from a talented 30 year-old “sometimes writer.” Thank you, Alison

  68. countrygirl says:

    This was so beautiful…

  69. Dragonflyboy says:

    Reblogged this on nealstotts.

  70. stevensmarji says:

    This is beautifully, splendidly written. I was moved. This is my favorite line:
    “This year not only have the nights been long, but my heart is long as well, stretched low as an anchor grazing the bottom of the sea.” Marji

  71. […] Stitch by stitch: thoughts on grief and hope → […]

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