Better Winnipeg: Memory Tree helps cope with death during Christmas

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WATCH: The Memory Tree is a symbol of hope during a season that sometimes carries sadness for those grieving the loss of a loved one. Global's Eva Kovacs reports. – Dec 18, 2017

Forget the festive ornaments, the massive 18 foot Christmas tree on display at a Winnipeg shopping centre is decorated with love.

Hundreds of greeting cards hang on the branches of the Memory Tree. Each one written in honour of someone who has passed away and is missed over the holidays.

It’s a tradition that has been a symbol of hope during a season that sometimes carries sadness for those grieving the loss of a loved one.

“You’re supposed to be happy, you’re supposed to be getting together with family and sharing a meal and giving gifts and making music,” said Margaret Clarke, a volunteer with Palliative Manitoba.

“But if you’ve experienced the loss of a loved one you’ve got an empty place at the table, you’re not buying a gift for the person anymore and there’s a hole in your heart.”

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The non-profit organization that provides workshops, programs and resources for people dealing with death and bereavement,  first came up with the idea of a Memory Tree in 1988.

“This is not necessarily a happy season for everyone and so we give them an opportunity to publicly acknowledge the difficulties they’re feeling,” said Clarke.

Blank cards are provided for people free of charge so they can write a message to a loved one. Even the youngest of visitors have pictures they can personalize with bright coloured crayons.

“I know for some folks it’s an annual tradition now that every year they come back to the tree,” said Clarke.

Marcheta Tanner has been coming to the tree since 2004. Earlier that year her 22 year old son Trevor was killed.

“It’s just an acknowledgement of my sorrow, at what’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. Which used to be for our family but it has a sharp edge to it now,” said Tanner.

Over the last 20 years, more than 42,000 cards have been placed on the Memory Tree.

“It’s private for them as they write the message and put it on the tree and then they seem to be able to let it go,” said Clarke.

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The tree is assembled every year at the end of November by staff from Manitoba Hydro who volunteer their time.  It remains at the St. Vital Centre right until Christmas Eve.

Palliative Manitoba has trained volunteers available at all times to offer support, accept donations and provide information about the organization’s year-round resources.

“When I visit the tree I see that I’m not alone in my sorrow. There’s many people that find this time of year difficult,” said Tanner.

Tanner has become a regular voice at Palliative Manitoba. Using her experience, she speaks to children who are on their own grief journey.

“It does get better. There is hope and there is light at the end of the tunnel,” said Tanner.

After December 24, all the cards are removed from the tree and burned out of respect.

“Those cards represent people and memories that are important and valuable and you just can’t put them in a recycling bin,” said Clarke.

While the written words come from a place of sadness, the tree is about more than the tears shed by its visitors.

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