The Power of Remembering: My Grandfather's Pipe

A person who is gone can live on in memory as an active agent in one’s life, not just as someone you love and miss, not just as a nostalgic sadness. – Elizabeth Harper Neeld, in Seven Choices: Finding Daylight after Loss Shatters Your World

The following piece was written by my younger son, Benjamin Ralph Tousley, as an entry in his journal.  He sent it to me yesterday and, with his permission, I’m sharing it here as one example of the power of remembering. As Ben's story demonstrates, death may end a life, but it does not end our relationship with the one who has died.  (Although my son is named after his paternal grandfather, Ralph Wilson Tousley, whom he loved dearly also, this piece is about his maternal grandfather—my father—Harry Eugene Merritt, MD, and of course it warms my heart.)

My Grandfather’s Pipe
By Benjamin R. Tousley, April 25, 2010

A horrible thing happened today.  My grandfather's pipe broke.  It was a cheap corncob pipe that probably cost about $3 when he bought it.  So what, right?  That would seem like no big deal, but to me it is.  It is a big deal to me for a number of reasons, some that make sense and some you just won't understand.

First, my grandfather has been dead for a great number of years.  That pipe and a couple more like it are all the physical remnants of him I have.  The only physical signs that a man I loved and admired was here and a part of my life.  I'm sure that he, like me and every other man, had his human frailties and shortcomings.  But to me he was a great man, up there in the annals of great men (to be named later).  He was a Renaissance man.  He was a medical doctor, Doc Merritt.  He also was a scholar, a musician and an outdoorsman.  He played the banjo, built his own canoes for fishing, outfitted deer blinds with swivel chairs for hunting, drew cartoons and treasure maps, and spoke multiple languages.

And I remember him fondly.  See, he died when I was about 10 or 11.  But when I was lucky enough to spend time with him, I remembered it.  I remember as a young boy, Grandfather and I taking long road trips.  Don't remember to where or why—who cares about that now anyway?  Point is we spent quality time together back in the day when you could not count on a radio station being heard 15-20 minutes outside of town.  So we talked, told jokes, or just enjoyed the quiet.

What was neat to me was that he had me stuff his pipe for him while we were driving. To me that was cool.  I felt, well, grown up, important, proud that he'd asked me to do something.  It was like that back then.  My dad was the same way, told us to do things,fix things, build things.  They expected us to be...capable.  So I have this memory of stuffing his pipe and feeling pretty cool about it.

What's the big deal?  If you asked that question, you obviously never smoked or stuffed a pipe.  It is as majestic an experience you can have for what some would call a bad vice. Smoking a pipe is an involved activity.  The bowl must be packed just right, too tight and it's too hard to draw, too loose and the tobacco goes out.  When it is just right you can smoke a single bowl for 40 minutes and never light a second match.  But it takes attention. I use a tamper to lightly tamp the tobacco periodically to maintain just the right pack.  Yes, I am a pussy, thanks for noticing.  But Greek Gods, Titans, and Grandfather used their thumb.  He was epic that way.

Grandfather was a serious pipe smoker too.  And so it was an honor bestowed upon me to be entrusted to stuff his pipe in just the right way.

So you can see why that pipe might be important to me.   Smoked that damn pipe every day for quite some time, but it was not always that way.  That pipe has a history.  Like I said, Grandfather died some 33 years ago.  For a 10 year old boy, my only understanding of it was he was here one day, gone the next.  No rhyme, no reason, just gone. More confusing was all his possessions...puff...gone.  Some went here, some went there; I have a few things that he gave me.  A Boy Scout knife, some collector coins.  But I also got his pipe.  And that was cool.

Well, the years went by.  I went to college, married, moved more times than a human being should in a lifetime, completed two missions overseas, got divorced, had property and boxes moved here, there, some stolen by movers, others lost in the divorce.  Chaos eased only by the healing power of time.  And so it was by no small miracle that one day a few years back I came across the pipes in a box while moving yet again.  I had started smoking pipes and cigars on my own years earlier.  To find these, especially after all that chaos in my life, was a magnificent treat.  I have been smoking that pipe constantly ever since.

Now, I have pipes.  I have expensive pipes, $150 pipes.  But, and in all honesty, none of them smoke as easily or as smoothly or provide the same enjoyment as that damn corn cob pipe.  Which makes it all the more special.  Plus I loved the notion that I was smoking such a relic.  Felt kind of like Indiana Jones.

As I alluded to two paragraphs ago, my life, like probably everyone’s to one degree or another, was active, tumultuous, evolving.  And with all the events in my life, I am now at the age where I am taking stock of my life, what I am, who I am, my accomplishments and failures.  What sums up my life.

So the pipe broke.  What a rotten thing.  Or is it?  I have those memories of Grandfather without the pipe.  He is immortalized by my memories of him.  But I have to tell you.  Holding that pipe, enjoying the experience of stuffing it just right brings the memories up to where they are palpable.

That pipe breaking was a hard pill to swallow.  But you know what I am going to do?  I am going to do just what Grandfather would do.  I'm going to get some corn on the cob, shave the corn off, dry the cob, drill the holes, and make my own corn cob pipe.  I think this kind of Renaissance-man response is befitting the memory of a great man.

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Selected Tweets, April 18 - 24

Recommended Reading, from Grief Healing's Twitter stream this week,

On Caregiving and Hospice: 

  On Understanding and Managing Grief:

On Pet Loss:

Are You Reluctant to Seek Counseling for Grief?

English: Comfort in GriefImage via WikipediaAre you undecided about attending a grief support group, or not too sure about talking to a bereavement counselor, wondering if it would help?

If it seems as if the unfinished business of loss is getting in the way of living your life, you would be wise to pay it the attention it deserves, and if necessary, to seek outside, professional help. As indicated in an earlier post, if you find that the support you're getting from family and friends seems like either too much or not enough, you may want to look elsewhere for the understanding and comfort you need.  You may wish to consider finding support in a grief group or having a few sessions with a bereavement counselor.

If you're reluctant to seek counseling for your grief, or worry that it won't do any good, consider this: If you had a broken arm or leg, you wouldn’t think twice about seeking medical attention, yet here you are with a broken heart and you’re expecting to be able to “fix” it all by yourself.

National Bereavement Camp Conference

The Moyer Foundation will hold it first 2010 National Bereavement Camp Conference on June 26, 2010 in Cleveland, Ohio. The conference will provide an overall view of bereavement camp structures and best practices across the country by creating a forum of exchange, learning and collaboration through sharing of timely clinical information, programs, advances in research and successful ideas for new or existing bereavement camps.

The conference will take place in conjunction with the National Alliance on Grieving Children Symposium, so there are special CEU pricing levels for NAGC attendees. Learn more about this exciting new conference and register here. Please contact Lynette Moore at lynette@moyerfoundation.org with any questions.

Selected Tweets, April 11 - 17

Recommended Reading, from Grief Healing's Twitter stream this week,

On Caregiving and Hospice: 
  • Michael J. Fox: "Life gets really good when things get terrible" via PopEater.com http://bit.ly/9A5GgD

 On Understanding and Managing Grief:
On Pet Loss:

Today is National Healthcare Decisions Day

This day has been set aside to encourage all of us to "have the talk" with our family members, making known our wishes for end-of-life care.

Learn more about advance directives and advanced care planning by visiting these sites:

National Healthcare Decisions Day

Advance Directives / Caring Conversations

10 Things Everyone Should Know about Advance Care Planning 

Video: Looking Ahead: Making Choices for Medical Care When You're Seriously Ill

National College Student Grief Awareness Week

Did you know that 22-30% of college students have lost a family member or close friend within the last year and 35-48% of undergraduate students have lost a family member or close friend within the last two years?

National College Student Grief Awareness Week is April 18-24, 2010. Learn more about how you can help raise awareness of this silent epidemic by visiting National Students of AMF Support Network and downloading the National Students of AMF Awareness Week Toolkit.

You can also attend National Students of AMF's Facebook event to get updates on Awareness Week activities.

Sesame Street's New Initiative for Grieving Families

The National Alliance for Grieving Children is participating with Sesame Street Workshop and New York Life Foundation to distribute information and materials from a new initiative.

This is a great opportunity to increase national awareness about grieving families. Sesame Street Workshop is launching an initiative, When Families Grieve, which provides resources to support families coping with the death of a parent.

On Wednesday April 14th at 8 pm on most PBS stations, Katie Couric will lead a two-hour special to kick off the program. Excerpts from a new Sesame Street DVD will be shown, and she will interview some of the families (and Muppets) seen in the DVD. (Check local listings to be sure.)



In an interview aired on the Sesame Street website, Katie Couric discloses that she wanted to get involved in this issue because, when her husband died over a decade ago, she needed resources for her two daughters aged two and six – and the resources weren’t readily available.

Bereavement Programs can benefit many ways from this initiative.

Multimedia Resource Kits are available and include:
• A DVD featuring the Muppets and real-life families who have experienced the death a parent (clips are available on the Web site)
• Print Materials, including a guide for parents, a storybook, and a facilitator’s guide.

Order as many kits as you need
Bereavement programs/practitioners are strongly encouraged to order as many kits as they need from Sesame Street. Bereavement programs can provide individual kits to families or use them for programs. Consider ordering enough for every family in your program with young children. Bring the kits as part of any outreach that you do in local schools. Kits will be available free of charge starting on April 15 and will be available through the Sesame Street Workshop website.

Idea: Hold your own screening
Some programs are holding a screening of the special that is airing on 4/14, while others are going to show the DVD to their families. Other programs are providing their families with the DVDs and getting their feedback on this resource. You know what works for your community. Sesame Street has created some flyers, a tip sheet and an Elmo activity to help. Download those from the NAGC website.

Idea: Connect with your local PBS station
Some programs have been able to partner with their local PBS affiliates for this special show. This increases awareness about local resources.

New York Life, an NAGC supporter, will distribute 50,000 copies of the kits to their agents and field affiliates. The Sesame Street kit complements their bereavement booklet which is available for free download. Visit the National Alliance for Grieving Children's Web site to learn more about New York Life's booklet.

The National Alliance for Grieving Children promotes awareness of the needs of children and teens grieving a death and provides education and resources for anyone who wants to support them ~ because all grieving children deserve a chance to heal.

Selected Tweets, April 4 - April 10

Recommended Reading, from Grief Healing's Twitter stream this week,

On Care Giving and Hospice: 
On Understanding, Managing Grief:

Finding Grief Support That is Right for You

The human organism knows how to heal itself, once it knows its symptoms are normal.  ~ Gail Sheey, in New Passages

Reaching out to others is often very difficult when we’re struggling with grief, but experience teaches us that the more support and understanding we have around us, the better we will cope.

You may wish that friends, family and co-workers would just “be there” for you without your having to ask, but that’s not likely to happen. It’s not that these people are uncaring; there simply is no way for them to fully understand the significance of your loss and the depth of your pain. Unfortunately your friends, family members and co-workers may not fully understand or appreciate the attachment you have with the one who has died and the pain you may still be feeling weeks and months after the death. What is more, your need to talk about your loss may outlast the willingness of others to listen.

If you find yourself in this position, please know that you have a number of helpful alternatives available to you.

Selected Tweets, March 28 - April 3

From Grief Healing's Twitter stream this week,

On Understanding, Managing Grief:
On Care Giving and Hospice:
On Pet Loss:
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