Worry Dolls + Endings.

By: Jen Shoop

When my great-aunt was near the end of her life, my father visited with her, and when he returned, he said: “I admire her. She is staring death straight in the face, head on.” A shiver went down my spine. I accommodated the message — as Philip Larkin put it, “Death is no different whined at than withstood” — but knew I lacked the backbone my father had observed.

When my friend Elizabeth was sick with cancer, I remember her panic at learning that her reproductive organs had been compromised, and that she would not be able to bear her own children. I could not bring myself to say anything, though I wanted to scream: “It’s you we’re worried about losing.” I just nodded, and agreed with what she said, and white-knuckled it through the rest of my visit, and then worried for the rest of her too-short life whether she knew how sick she was. When I was younger, my best friend had traveled to Guatemala with her family and returned with a tiny set of “worry dolls” for me. Following her instruction, I placed them under my pillow when scared, pursuant to the promise that my trivial woes would leave my body and replant themselves in the dolls instead. When Elizabeth was sick and possibly in denial, I imagined that I was her worry doll: I could carry the disastrous truth for her. I could let her sleep easily in dissent of death.

The afternoon she passed away, my friend T. called me to tell the news. I sat down on the bed of my 32nd Street apartment in Georgetown in a trembling shock. I remember everything about that moment: the quality of light coming through the old-fashioned paned row house window, the dimness of the far side of my quilted bed. The words that came out of my mouth belonged to somebody else: they were distorted, alien, as though submerged in water. I remember consoling T., and thinking that her grief must be larger than mine, as she had been there until the very end with her, and I had not seen Elizabeth in perhaps two weeks. I know now I was beginning the fruitless, fugitive sprint from my own grief, believing that I could somehow shrink or contain it.

I know this because a classmate of ours reached out a few days later and said, “I am so sorry, Jen. I know how close you were to her.” And I responded, “Thank you, but I know that ____ are grieving her especially. I will pass on your condolences.” Perhaps, by disowning the grief, I could avoid it.

It has taken me a long time to look at that summer without ducking. I wish I had done more in the face of her death; I wish I’d channeled my great-aunt’s courage. A few weeks ago, a Magpie wrote in to share one of her favorite mantras, Jesus’ words to Mary of Bethany: “She did what she could” (Mark 14:8). Despite my regrets, I know that I did what I could at that time. I was unable to shepherd those end-of-life conversations with her, or to accept the initial onset of grief, but I did fashion myself into her worry doll, and love her through every moment, and I have spent many years writing to come to terms with her passing. I sometimes feel that writing about Elizabeth is a wan atonement for my absence at the time of her death and my sequestration from immediate grief, but equally I know that sometimes we write to survive the impossible. We write to reckon with endings. We write to rage against them, knowing full well that even a sentence must progress to its own period. We write to watch ourselves wax and wane, eventually reaching a peaceful coda.


+A permutation on this theme inspired by John Prine.

+Life takes root around the perimeter.

+On the uses of sorrow.

+Marriage is an act of optimism.

Shopping Break.

+This is what the worry dolls looked like. I have no idea where they went — I wish I still had some.

+This $108 dress is a dead-ringer for La Ligne.

+I absolutely live in these slippers at home. They are the most comfortable things on earth. I love that they have a rubberized/thick sole so you can actually run out to the garbage bins / take your dog out if you need to. (They’re called “Coffee Run” slippers for a reason.)

+Already getting a lot of wear out of these platform espadrilles this year.

+Anxiously awaiting the restock of these sandals. They are SO good for $60. I also bought a couple of really cute items from Zara kids this week, and my favorite item was this pair of striped denim shortalls for my son. He’s also going to freak out when I give him this Rolling Stones tee. They LOVE rock music and any graphic tee is gold to them. Some cute graphic tee options here.

+Another great Boden find.

+Two fabulous clutches to know about: this dramatic marbleized pearl style and the beautiful new embroidered floral ones from Pam Munson’s collaboration with Aerin.

+Two new pairs of earrings I’m loving: these Lizzie Fortunatos and these Simone Rochas. More spring jewelry here.

+Pretty white eyelet dress — under $100.

+My melamine plates from Target arrived and I’m thrilled! So inexpensive and I love the patterns. I am now eyeing this rattan caddy and woven tray.

+Cute pink jeans.

+More al fresco dining finds here.

+Love the stripes on this summer knit.

+This tiered rose print dress is fabulous. Aptly called “The Kentucky Derby dress.” Do you watch? I’m going to a Derby party this year!

+This has to be the most beautiful candle I’ve ever seen.

+Love the styling on these helmets for kids.

+These personalized Mason Pearson brushes are beyond precious.

+My dream evening gown.

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4 thoughts on “Worry Dolls + Endings.

  1. I just finished “We All Want Impossible Things” by Catherine Newman, a novel about a middle aged woman supporting her closest friend through hospice (largely based on the author’s experience in this role). It was heartwarming, hilarious, and incredibly thought-provoking. Though you know the ending (obviously), I couldn’t finish it fast enough. It made me ponder my own friendships, mortality, hypothetical end-of-life choices, legacy, and overall, the way in which you can choose to grieve and approach death.

  2. A thoughtful reflection, thank you for articulating this sentiment so eloquently. There is, I suspect, no “right” way of responding to that which is unthinkable. We try our best and remember we are human and the world can be cruel and wonderful in turn.

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