Northwest Herald

Oliver: What if we tried to make something beautiful out of our painful losses?

While drying dishes one recent afternoon, I did the unthinkable. I broke my beloved cereal mug.

I had it in my hands and then, complete with that sickening slow-motion sensation, I saw it flip over and fall to the kitchen floor. There, it broke into too many pieces to count.

Most people wouldn’t have seen too much value in the mug. It was yellow with white speckles and a cute little snowman, complete with a scarf. It was perhaps a bit too large to hold coffee, but it was perfect for cereal, mug brownies, oatmeal and whatever else I could think of.

I’d had it for years, and I used it just about every day. It even had a teeny-tiny crack that I’d been carefully watching.

What made it so special, besides that I’d had it for years? It was a gift from my husband’s sister Jan. She had Down syndrome and it was the only gift I ever received from her. She died a few years ago, and that made the mug even more precious. It was as if the mug held her memory for me.

So, I guess it would be understandable that I found myself with tears in my eyes as I tried to make sense of what had just occurred. There was no saving it, and there was no going back.

Of course, that reminded me of so many things that happen to us in life. Somehow, we must make sense of the losses we experience, whether they are things, circumstances or people.

In this case, I also didn’t have a lot of time to mourn the cup’s loss. I was on my way to an MRI test to confirm the breast cancer that had been found in a recent biopsy. That I was distracted and nervous probably contributed to the mug’s demise.

Still, I keep going back to the imagery of the broken pieces of that mug. I know that I’ll still value and treasure the memory of it and its connection to my sister-in-law even though it’s gone.

As much as I would like to say that I come to peace with my losses and move on, I know that isn’t the case. We never really move on; we must find a way to carry them and move through life with them.

Then I remembered what Japanese artists do with broken pottery. In a technique called kintsugi, they use gold or silver or another precious metal to mend the pottery and fill in the cracks, bringing beauty to something broken.

It’s said this is meant to emphasize the beauty in the imperfect, but I think it also is a beautiful way of coming to terms with loss.

What if each of the people we’ve lost had their own shard of pottery, with colors or imagery that made it easily recognizable to us? And what if we took each of those pieces and connected them with the love and memories that we cherish about them, like that gold or silver in kintsugi pottery?

Jan’s piece would be yellow with a little snowman wearing a scarf. Jan was sweet and welcoming, and she had a delightful sense of humor.

My father’s piece would be green, with musical notes and instruments. There also would be a sheaf of paper, to represent the many wonderful stories that he would tell.

My mother’s piece would be red and very quirky. It would have to have a cat on it, no doubt one that looks like her beloved Cinders. Maybe it also would have a paperclip and piece of tape to represent how she’d always MacGyver things.

My friend Bessie’s piece would be purple, her favorite color. It would have a basketball on it to honor that delightful day when she allowed me to teach her about NBA basketball.

My friend Becky’s piece would have a bit of Rene Magritte painting on it, since she was the friend whose taste in art and film were closest to mine. Oh, and there would be a quote from Jane Austen’s “Persuasion,” since she took me to see that on the night before I married my Tony.

My brother Gary’s piece would have to have the logos of the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Chicago Bears. After all, he was my sports-watching buddy.

Oh, how I miss them all. For some of them, I’ve carried their loss for decades. Others, the loss is still recent and the edges still sharp.

But the more I think about the beautiful qualities that made each of them so precious to me, I’m filling in those sharp edges with love and memories, as precious as gold or silver.

In the process, I’m turning something painful into something beautiful. And easier to carry, I hope.

Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

Joan Oliver

Joan Oliver

A 30-year newspaper veteran who has been a copy editor, front-page editor, presentation editor, assistant news editor and publication editor, as well as a columnist and host of an online newspaper newscast.