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January 9, 2013

Hospice creates ‘memory bears’ to console the bereaved

Bears are made with fabric from clothing of the deceased

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

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Hospice creates ‘memory bears’ to console the bereaved
Angela Berger’s memory bear was made from a sweatshirt her mother used to wear, featuring Grumpy from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” It even still has strands of hair from her mother, as well as her scent.

METRO DETROIT — Angela Berger’s heart is filled with cherished memories of her mother, Margaret Cisneros.

The Clinton Township resident recalls how her mother, a breast cancer survivor who passed away in September from bone and lung cancer at age 74, was always cooking in the kitchen, true to her Romanian roots. She had a warm sense of humor, always laughing, and loved the Detroit Tigers — she was even laid to rest in a Tigers jersey.

But most defining of all was how she’d always provide for the needs of others before asking anything for herself. The cycle came full-circle when Berger, her husband and their 5-year-old daughter moved in with Cisneros to care for her.

“That’s just how I was raised,” Berger said. “She was my world, so it was only right.”

Losing her mother hit Berger hard; she had already lost her dad two years before, and her other daughter, a stillborn, five years before that.

But this time, there was some comfort to be had, in the form of a teddy bear.

It’s all part of the memory program at Hospice of Michigan (HOM), where volunteers create patchwork teddy bears for the patient families. Intricately detailed and provided free of charge, the bears stand about 8 inches tall and are fashioned out of cotton, wool, fleece or flannel, taken straight from the clothing of the deceased.

Volunteers commit to treat the clothing with the utmost respect. If the recipient family wants back what’s left, they return it; otherwise, they keep the leftover material in a safe place. Nothing is done to change the integrity of the clothing; it remains unwashed, retaining the scent of the loved one who once wore it.

The bear made for Berger even has strands of her mother’s hair still on it. It was created from one of the heavy flannel sweatshirts her mother used to wear, featuring Grumpy from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Like the dwarf himself, it even has a stocking cap. The bear also has a Grumpy knapsack slung over its shoulder, with a personal note inside from the volunteer who made it. And just before her mother passed, Berger clipped some of her hair, so she put the locket in the knapsack, as well.

“I can’t express how much I loved my mother, and still do, and always will,” Berger said. “I can still smell her on the bear, and of course it won’t last forever, but it’s a wonderful thing. If my daughter is taking a nap, I can curl up with it and talk to it, and of course it won’t talk back, but I feel like I’m hugging my mom.”

Giving solid form to the memories of a loved one is the idea behind the memory program at HOM, said Karen Monts, the hospice’s director of grief support services.

“I won’t say that HOM is exactly the organization that came up with the idea — the concept of memory bears has been around for a while — but we tapped into it out of the same need: families who come for grief support who say they’ve given everything away (to do with the loved one) but can’t part with the shirt.

“When you lose someone, the relationship transitions from a physical one to one of memories, and having something tangible can be very comforting,” she said. “It comforts them and reminds them that, ‘Yes, I can make it through this; I will make it through.’”

HOM is the largest hospice in the state and serves most of Michigan. The memory program took off several years ago in their Alpena, Ludington and Big Rapids offices, and has since expanded to other areas, including Metro Detroit communities.

“For a hospice, it’s a very unique program,” Monts said. “We’re one of the only in (southeast Michigan) to offer it.”

Right now, HOM has a few dedicated volunteers making the bears in this area, and they could always use more. Volunteers need to have basic sewing skills, but the hospice will provide the patterns used to assemble the bears.

There are other volunteer opportunities available through the hospice, as well, such as spending time with patients — playing cards with them, singing with them, or even assisting the family by allowing them to step away for a while. There are opportunities to help style the patients’ hair, walk their dogs, do home improvement, and even clerical duties for the hospice, itself.

“Anyone can tap into what their talents are and say, ‘I want to volunteer this for Hospice of Michigan,’” Monts said.

The good work of volunteers doesn’t go unappreciated, said Berger, who is forever grateful for her memory bear and what it represents.

“Little things mean a lot,” Berger said. 

To volunteer for Hospice of Michigan, call Kathleen Pennington, director of volunteer services, at (313) 578-6259.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.