What should you keep when you lose a loved one?


Nicki Reed

Nicki Reed and her sister Libby.

Nicki Reed and her sister Libby.

The other day I was visiting Darren, my sister's partner, when I saw her hairbrush on the coffee table. She died two years ago and while we sorted her clothes, bagged them, donated them, kept a few articles for ourselves, there are still bits and pieces of Libby's life around the house like she'll be back any second. 

Dead is dead. Disappeared. I might have Libby's books, and clothes, and things she loved, but they are slippery shadows of her.

Darren was in the kitchen when I picked up Libby's hairbrush. I tweaked a curling strand from the brush and slid my finger along it. Twisted, bumpy, golden, I held it soft and felt her. I felt with her. I slipped the hair into my pocket.

The things you do.


When I got home I sat on the couch twirling the hair round my finger. I held it up to the light, here was something tangible. I decided to put the proof into an envelope.

It's no mean feat to deliver a single hair into an envelope.

I made the hair small, tight, and tucked it carefully into a corner, and licked the gummy edges and sealed the envelope. Then I looked down and noticed a shiny twisty longish gold hair on my black t-shirt.

Seems I'd sealed a strand of nothing into my envelope.

Another envelope. I curled the hair into a tiny sideways figure eight eternity symbol. Dropped it into the envelope. Squinted into the white to confirm the hair was there. Sealed the envelope. Found a pen. What to write, what to write. I wanted to say something like DO NOT THROW OUT but it seemed like a bit of an invitation. Terrible handwriting, it says, Libby. Keep forever.

When my grandmother died nearly sixteen years ago, I held onto some clothes, jumpers, her dressing gown, not to wear, just to have. I've got her purse and a couple of scritchy-scratchy shopping lists. But I love her glasses the best. They still have a smear of thumbprint on one of the lenses. Evidence.

Grief is like anything else you have to experience to understand; parenting, sex, credit card debt, you name it.

You can read up on grief, try to be empathetic, try to say the right thing, but until you have lost, you don't know. I didn't. Not even with my grandmother. She was ninety-seven and she was good to go, and though I miss her, it's different. I do love that thumbprint, though. 

I'm meat to be sharing Libby's Doc Martens with my other sister but there they sit inside my front door, a leather and scuff Libby-memorial. Doc Martens are the Combi van of footwear, practical, mildly unattractive, and somehow cool. I don't love them, but if her boots fit I'd wear them. Her footprints are inside, the squeeze of her toes, the press of her heel, I want to feel that impression with my own foot.





Evidence of the disappeared. The goneness is inexplicable but the souvenirs help. Empty boots, never-used hairbrushes, glasses not worn solidify the disappearance. Make it real. Because it's got to be real. Grief is an adventure on the sad edge of a cliff and there's no healing in denial.

A hair in an envelope. What am I going to with that hair? It's been in a corner of the kitchen bench for weeks and I suppose that's where it will stay.