Young Connor Scott’s grandmother lived for years with his family. In fact, he had not spent a day of his life without her.
When she died, Connor missed her terribly.
That’s when family friend and Pittsburgh clothing designer Jen Primack stepped in to help.
“We were doing that hard stuff of going through Mom’s things, when Jen asked for some pieces of her clothes, the things she wore all the time,” recalled Connor’s mother, Maria Scott. “The next thing I know, these pillows arrived. Connor found it so comforting.”
Primack had created what she calls “memory pillows” for the Scott family, fashioned in patchwork from the clothing of Connor’s grandmother.
“The pillows even still smelled like Mom,” Maria Scott said. “Connor would go to bed holding this pillow. It really comforted him. It eased his grieving process.”
Primack, who holds a master’s degree in adult education, began sewing about 10 years ago, having been taught by her husband, who took a sewing course at Community College of Allegheny County.
“I started making gifts for people,” she said. “Then, when my dad passed away about eight years ago, I had a few bins of his clothes. I started making pillows out of it.”
“I made pillows for some family members, and for his best friend,” she continued, adding that she chose the type of garments used for each pillow depending on how the recipient viewed her father.
“For my sister, I made the pillow out of suits and ties, because she saw him as a businessman,” Primack said. “For my mom, I used casual clothes, khaki pants and polo shirts. For his best friend, who he used to watch Steelers games with, I used his Steelers sweatshirts.”
Primack acknowledged that other artists have been creating memory pillows for years, but she says she has put her “own spin” on the concept.
“I make the pillows custom by talking to the person who has commissioned them,” she said. “I talk to them about why different articles of clothing might be meaningful. Sometimes stains can be the most meaningful part. What might look like a stain can be a memory to them.”
Primack, through her Web-based business Upcyled Designs, also fashions apparel from discarded clothing, including Jewish-holiday themed children’s attire. Most of her designs are patchwork creations, like her memory pillows.
While a memory pillow may not ease the grieving process for everyone, in general, “it can be very useful,” said Heather Servaty-Seib, associate professor of educational studies at Purdue University, who specializes in thanatology, the scientific study of death and dying. Servaty-Seib runs a bereavement support program with her students, having children within the program draw on pillowcases — angry thoughts and feelings on one side, and good memories on the other.
“The way people grieve is unique to each person, and has personal, emotional, cognitive, behavioral and social components,” Servaty-Seib said. “It’s common for children to want to have something more tangible of people who die.”
That the memory pillows often still smell of the deceased loved one can be very helpful she noted.
“Smell is a very powerful sense,” she said. “It goes directly to the pre-frontal cortex, so there is a direct connection to memory. It makes sense that that is something people may value.”
While years ago the conventional wisdom was that one should work quickly through grief, the field of bereavement has evolved so that mementos such as memory pillows can be very beneficial, Servaty-Seib said.
“It used to be you had to let go and forget,” she said. “But that is not where the field is now. Now it’s about how you integrate the experience into your life, rather than something to get over. Objects like this (the pillows) can help with the transition, so that they (the bereaved) don’t hold onto it as if it were a person, but rather a clear reminder of the person they lost. The love for the person doesn’t die when the person dies.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)