Good Grief
Robin Edgar Shares The Healing Power Of Reminiscence
By LIZ SENN - May 4, 2005

Robin Edgar’s modern-day quest for coping with grief requires looking back to the past. When her own mother passed away in 1993, Edgar began to search for ways to come to terms with her loss. “My mom was my best friend,” says Edgar. “Mother’s Day is a tough time — even more so because it usually falls around my birthday, May 8.

“I still wish I could pick up the phone and talk to her,” Edgar reflects. “I can’t. But I can talk about her, and celebrate the things she taught me how to do — like make a great pot roast. Mother’s Day is always bittersweet, but that’s how I make it through.”

By keeping her mother’s traditions alive, Edgar began to find peace. But her passion for the past didn’t evolve into a plan for the present and a design for the future until she penned the syllabus for a writing course she teaches at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C. Edgar says that in using written accounts of memories about her mother’s life as examples for her students, she experienced a breakthrough. “The stories identified and celebrated the wonderful qualities that made my mother who she was, and also defined how her life affected me as an individual,” says Edgar. Through her writing and teaching, Edgar developed a personal set of rituals that helped her work through the pain of her loss.
Reviving A Tradition
Inspired by her experience in the classroom, Edgar began teaching reminiscence workshops for bereavement programs and for individuals wishing to record family histories. “It dawned on me that this is what we used to do all the time,” says Edgar, “sit around the campfire or fireplace and tell our stories. Somehow, the literate society got tricked into thinking that other people’s stories were more important [than their own].”

Edgar wrote a grant that paid for her to publish her book and to teach reminiscence workshops on bereavement at a hospice six miles from her home in Ohio. Released in 2002, Edgar’s book sold 1,000 copies in the first eight months. In 2003, a second edition was published, coinciding with her relocation to Charlotte.

Though editors at several larger publishing houses told Edgar that bereavement was too narrow a field for healthy book sales, she is sure that a readership exists. “Who do you know who hasn’t had a family member die?” asks Edgar. “Death is connected to everybody, and our society has not provided people with very good coping skills.”

Matt Lauer of NBC’s Today Show agrees. He endorsed In My Mother’s Kitchen after telling Edgar in an interview that he sponsors charity golf tournaments for a hospice in celebration and remembrance of his father, who taught him how to play golf.
Coming To Your Senses
Edgar says a lot of “writing your life story” books read like test questions, but she prefers to take a different approach. “I take people back to their significant memories via the senses. Your senses are tied to very emotional times in your life. Studies have shown that the sense of smell is directly connected to the part of the brain that consolidates long-term memories,” says Edgar. “I tell people to follow their noses to significant memories. If you can think of a smell that takes you back in time and puts you in a place, I guarantee, when you start telling the story, it’s going to be a significant memory.”

“There’s a reason why we keep those memories,” Edgar explains. “It goes back to that survival mechanism we are all wired with. For example, if you’re in a fire, the smell of smoke alerts you and you get frightened, which is good because you need to protect yourself.”
Rx For Recovery
“The Healing Power of Reminiscence workshops focus on the steps to recalling, recording and celebrating significant memories to help participants recognize and value the individuals and incidents that shaped their lives,” says Edgar. This creative process is also an effective tool in coping with loss or change due to illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s, or the death of a loved one, as well as separation due to divorce or empty-nest syndrome. “Even genealogists and scrapbookers can use this step-by-step creative process for recording family histories,” notes Edgar in her book.

The next step is taking time to write the stories down. Edgar says journaling reinforces a sense of self-worth, and serves as an important reminder to let loved ones know how much they mean to us before they pass on. “You don’t realize how much you’ve accomplished or how you’ve affected people until you look back and realize that you did good things, and you meant a lot to other people,” she says.

Classes conclude with rituals, something societies that maintained history through oral traditions did all the time to celebrate memories. “They would pass around artifacts or tell stories about the person,” Edgar explains. The workshops teach individuals to develop their own personal rituals to perform, like putting on old music, visiting a place you used to enjoy, or planting a tree for someone who has passed on. “Celebrate the time you had with somebody, instead of feeling sad that they’re not with you anymore.”

When her mother, Sandra, was dying of cancer, Edgar served as full-time caregiver for two and a half years, in addition to caring for her three children. After her mother passed away, Edgar went back to work, and says she didn’t really take time to grieve. “Our society says you have three days to get over it and get on with it,” says Edgar. Contrary to that notion, bereavement is a lifelong process, she says. “When I miss my mom, my personal ritual is to make one of her recipes — mandel bread.”

Edgar continued her family legacy through the upbringing of her own children, who are now grown. She told them, “Success is not how much money you make or how many people know your name. You do what you love to do, and you help people.” Edgar is happily living that philosophy in her own life. “I feel so blessed to be able to do what I love to do,” she says, “and to help people through my book and my workshops.” TCW