Pearl Ethridge didn’t know at first what the hundreds of small cloth bags she was sewing were to be used for.
When she learned those 1,000 bags would hold candles and be given to those who lost someone to COVID, or to those who lost someone during the pandemic’s turmoil and disruption of the grieving process, the project took on a special meaning.
She always puts love into the custom quilts and clothes she makes for customers, and she wants those who get one of her bags to know it was made with the same love.
“So many people had lost loved ones who they weren’t able to say goodby to,” Ethridge told APR on Wednesday. “They weren’t even able to visit or just talk to by phone. I can only imagine what it must have been like.”
A quilt bought from a catalog or a store doesn’t share the same special connection with the maker that one of her quilts has, Ethridge explained. The love that she puts into those quilts is carried with them, she explained.
“So when Evan told me what the bags represent, it gave a whole lot of meaning to me, Ethridge said.
For Evan Milligan, executive director of Alabama Forward, a statewide coalition of civic engagement nonprofits, the group’s Shine a Light Alabama project is both a way to allow people to grieve in a collective way and to pay respect to those who’ve lost someone, some of the very same people those groups try to engage with.
“What’s it mean to show up in communities and ask people, hey, register to vote, or think about how your government can be more fair and more equitable. More transparent. How do we start the conversation there, and then there’s all of this loss that we’re not even acknowledging as advocates?” Milligan said.
That was the start of the concept of combining a model that includes helping people grieve and a civic engagement component Milligan explained.
Ethridge’s bags include a candle and glass candle holder, a sticker, guides on reflective activities and candle lighting ceremonies, grief resources and advocacy information, and vaccination information provided by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“How do we just show that basic respect around, I acknowledge your loss, and create ways for people to do that safely in comfortable spaces with their loved ones,” Milligan said. And then hopefully we invite them to think also from an advocacy place around the gaps in medical coverage, and insurance and access to vaccines and things of that nature that may have prevented people from getting the help that they needed earlier on, and that left so many people vulnerable.”
The Shine a Light Alabama website also has a memorial wall, where people can post an image of an item that reminds them of a loved one, and a message about their loved one.
In one such post is the photo of a light meter, used by photographers to adjust a camera’s settings.
“Dad had a lifelong love for photography and kept a flash meter nearby,” Milligan wrote in the post. He lost his father, William “Bill” Henry Milligan Jr., on June 29, and although the death wasn’t from COVID, the disruption to the family’s ability to provide support for him due to the hospital’s COVID protocols made the death all the more difficult for the family to bear, he explained.
Thousands of families across the state have shared similar heartaches as the Milligans during the pandemic, losing loved ones without being able to be at their hospital bed, funerals attended online rather than in person, the normal grieving process interrupted.
“You have all of these things that go unsaid,” Milligan said. “If I had been there. If I could have spent the night, and that adds to the grief.”
His father’s death came just as the group was preparing to launch the Shine A Light Alabama project.
“We had been spending all this time writing about grief and trying to organize resources and encouraging people to [care for their] mental health, and I had to sit down and take that own advice for myself,” Milligan said.
Milligan hopes those who lost someone to COVID or during the pandemic will take advantage of the opportunity to grieve that Ethridge’s gift bags afford, and will look over the website’s memorial wall and use the resources available on the website.
“These cultural things that we can do, it’s a step. Every day we’ve got to take another step, and we take it one day at a time,” Milligan said.
There have been 13,665 confirmed COVID deaths in Alabama, more than 681,000 in the U.S. and more than 4.5 million worldwide.
To receive a kit visit the Shine a Light Alabama website and fill out the contact form. Those who hold candle lighting ceremonies and who would like to are asked to share photos of those ceremonies on social media and use the hashtag #shinealabama.