top of page
FEATURE - July 2018

Universal Grief—

Creating Personal and Public Altars


by Traci Bray 


When grieving the loss of a loved one, person or pet, everything feels different. Energy shifts. Things smell different. Even the air we breathe seems noteworthy. Individuals who have shared a home with a person who has passed will say, “It just didn’t feel the same,” when walking back into their home for the first time. Most people seem to long for that sameness. Yet, at heart, creating something new in that energetically opened space from where the dead soul has exited or transitioned or passed - whatever the term—presents as a desirable opportunity. A variety of approaches exist. “Whatever Works” might be a safe motto assigned to people following the death of someone close to them. 


     For those that do not wish for things to feel or remain the same, this shift may not be understood, yet is best respected. A client told me about arriving at her mother’s home hours  after her father had died to find her mother with boxes and plastic garbage bags, emptying the father’s closet. The mother was nearing the end of her task and had not only kept nothing for herself, but also not separated any articles for the client and her sibling to keep or wear. The client was horrified, as her mother appeared joyful and relieved. Although perhaps a wide water to bridge, respect builds a strong foundation.


In contrast, some people create shrines of things related to their loved one.Commonly, a space on a tabletop or mantle is used to display groupings which may include a vessel with cremains, photographs, written notes such as funeral programs and endeared related items. 


     My own shrine for my departed father includes a photo of him and his oldest brother as youngsters, the last group photo taken with his then-living siblings. Also there are some antique nails he gave me as well as iron sheep and cow bells. I so love the little acorn I picked up near his grave some time ago that poses in the setting. Whatever is personal to you is what works.


     There are times when family members and loved ones have concerns regarding the breadth of such shrines. Another client reported going to a home of a family member following the death of that person’s spouse. She described, “Not a single space in the living room or dining room was spared from his shirts that had been mounted in frames, his brush, comb, toothbrush and used tube of toothpaste, along with aftershave on a silver tray, photo after photo….nearly anything you could imagine.” In fact the client tripped over a row of the man’s collection of boots lined up near the front doorway and had to move a stack of his blue jeans from the sofa in order to sit down. The living family member reported that the “...stuff makes me feel as if he’s right here with me,” and continued that she could feel the tips of his fingers (in shape) as she picked up the toothpaste.  As the client would check in with her mother on the shrine status as time proceeded, her mother did not seem to desire to move forward out of that space, either in shifting the objects or in controlling the clutter. Although the degree and quantity to which the elder woman arranged relics is unique, the desire to hold on to objects is not. Certainly, safety from fire and tripping hazards must be adhered to. 


     Public expressions of grief in the form of shrines are becoming increasingly visible in the United States, particularly those created at auto accidents. Crosses, teddy bears, hats and other memorabilia are placed at the sites of a death often within hours of occurrence. States including Colorado and Wyoming erected laws to contain and curtail public shrines along roadways and highways. This was done for a variety of reasons to include aesthetic value and safety of not only of those glancing in passing at the shrines, but drivers stopping on the roadway to either view from their vehicle or to get out for a visit. Such shrines are known as descansos, or resting places, especially in the Southwestern United States. The custom of marking the place of death with a small cross was brought to Mexico by Spanish colonists. 


     In the Kansas City area, when a death involving a bicycle occurs, a bike painted white and termed a “ghost bike” is placed at the site as both a memorial that symbolizes a cyclist’s life lost and a reminder to drivers to be more careful. At scenes of violent death likewise, shrines appear including photos of the victim taped to light posts with flowers placed at the base. 


     Following world known designer Kate Spade’s death in New York City, June of 2018, her Kansas City Plaza storefront displayed a number of bouquets of flowers on the sidewalk outside the front door. These public expressions harken to Victorian times in Great Britain. Perhaps the most noteworthy outdoor altars occurred in London, England at the gates of both Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace and at Westminster Abbey where the funeral took place. Fresh flowers from loose blooms to full bouquets and sprays, photographs, cards, notes and original art were left by the thousands. Perhaps this display created by individuals represents a collective grief and establishes a united response.


     In summary, from small to large, altars bring survivors a knowingness of memory, but also a sense of spirit near of the soul that has passed. They take a variety of shapes and sizes physically, yet for some, remain in the mind. We are an amalgamation of peoples with an individualized sense of how death is done. As in life, judging the altars of the dead, particularly those built by those we love, is perhaps not in our best interest, while letting-it-be is.


Evolving Magazine

Kansas City

Click to Read the Current Issue!

Traci Bray, BS, MA serves as a Certified Research Medium with the Windbridge Research Center in Tucson, Arizona. She is available by phone and in-person for individual, group and family sessions connecting the living with the dead which she has been doing for over 30 years. Her Master's is in Law Enforcement and Justice Administration. She posts nearly daily at and her website is She resides in Kansas City.


  • Wix Facebook page
  • Wix Twitter page
bottom of page