A Place for Grief

Finding ways to honor and connect with loved ones who have passed

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Fact checked by Shannon Sparks

 

Oliver Brown Leopold had a robust life. As a teenager, he created apps for other students at Evanston Township High School and for the city’s fire department, where he had participated in their youth fire patrol program. During a gap year after high school, he worked in a local hospital’s emergency department and was training to become a paramedic. He planned to study biomedical engineering once he started college.

But at age 19, in December 2021, Oliver passed away, with no clear cause of death. Many people mourned his loss, but he remains very present for his mother, Mary Leopold.

In fact, Leopold says she has never stopped mothering him. “I talk to him all the time, and when I go for walks in our neighborhood — where people are talking with Air Pods — I talk to him out loud,” says Leopold, a social worker with a practice in Northbrook. “I think our relationship has grown since he passed away.”

Leigh Huston, a social worker and bereavement counselor at Accord Hospice, says that talking to loved ones who have passed away is a very important part of the grieving process. “People go to the gravesite to talk to their loved ones, so there is no reason why it wouldn’t be normal elsewhere. They might find talking to the deceased loved one helps them identify and clarify their emotions.”

Leopold’s ongoing conversations with Oliver are not unique. “When a loved one dies, the trajectory of life with them changes forever. The future with that person — the birthdays, anniversaries, the milestones, the good times and bad times — will be different,” says Melissa Prusko, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with The Family Institute at Northwestern University. “The person is physically gone, but there is a continuing, meaningful bond that remains.”

Grieving is an individual process. “It can be very private or public,” Prusko says. “People have to be very creative and find what is meaningful for the relationship they had with their loved one.”

Other ways in which people honor their deceased loved one include:

• Writing letters or private eulogies

• Planting the person’s favorite flower in their garden

• Doing an activity they used to enjoy together

• Donating to a cause

• Creating a memorial

Huston was a stay-at-home mom who had previously worked as an accountant when her mother was dying. She had been contemplating what to do when a hug from a social worker made Huston realize that she wanted to offer the same comfort to the bereaved. So she made a stark career change: She became a social worker.

“I chose the profession to honor my family — my parents as well as my sisters, who were an amazing source of strength during my parents’ illnesses and death. I realized not everyone has that strong family bond, so I wanted to help people that didn’t,” Huston says.

Some people who are grieving turn to their network of comforting friends for solace or people in their life who are good at helping with routine tasks. Other mourners might find a support group helpful. However, Huston says, “Every support group has a personality and a story to tell that might not match what you need. If they don’t [match], you can try another one.”

Leopold says that while her husband, Alexander Brown, is the family’s introvert, she is the extrovert. In processing her own grief, she reached out to listen to other grievers’ stories.

“This is so therapeutic for me,” Leopold says. She also says that going back to work kept her grounded. And she continues to attend a yoga class that has been an essential part of her life for at least 20 years. “Now sometimes I just lay on my mat, and the tears start flowing,” she says. “I feel so connected to the people in the class who have been so supportive.”

Shortly after Oliver’s death, Leopold found another way to honor her son. She learned about a garden designer in Japan, Itaru Sasaki, who had set up a vintage phone booth in his own garden in 2010. He could pick up a disconnected rotary phone and find comfort in talking with his beloved deceased cousin, feeling that the breeze would carry his words to his cousin.

The following year, after an earthquake and tsunami in Japan killed more than 15,000 people, Sasaki moved the booth to a spot overlooking the ocean, where all mourners can use the peaceful space to communicate with deceased loved ones.

“The wind phone spoke to me very profoundly,” Leopold says. She described it to friends, and within two days, they had raised enough funds to install a replica of a British-style red phone booth with a nonworking old-fashioned rotary phone on the 11th hole of Evanston’s Canal Shores Golf Course.

“It’s a safe place where grief is welcome and normal,” Leopold says. “I think it’s making Oliver smile because it connects so many people the way he did — and especially because it’s fire engine red.”


Above photo: Wind phone installed at Canal Shores golf course in memory of Oliver Brown Leopold. Photo courtesy of Mary Leopold
Originally published in the Summer/Fall 2024 print issue