Sometimes, grief can hit us at the most unexpected times, in the most unexpected places. For Rachael Prior, who is head of film at a London production company, it always tends to strike at Christmas. Especially when she’s shopping in a particular British department store: Marks and Spencer.
Prior was recently in the store with her family when she found herself overcome with emotion, and fired off a tweet that wound up striking a cord with thousands.
“Nowhere and no time do I miss my dad more acutely than in the men’s department of M&S at Christmas,” Prior wrote. “If I see another reasonable priced, deep red angora mix sweater with a ribbon round it I’m going to actually have a breakdown.”
Little did she know that such an honest, endearing tweet would get such an overwhelming response — so far gathering over 14,000 likes, and 2,000 replies.
“I played Southend tonight,” wrote British singer Alison Moyet. “Every time I have, I was stressed because my parents were in the audience. This time I was aware that they were not.”
Meanwhile, James Corden encouraged followers to read the thread, saying: “It will warm your heart. Beautiful.”
I myself found the tweet only after J.K. Rowling retweeted it, writing: “Twitter really is wonderful sometimes.”
Among the thousands of responses, strangers talked of the many triggers that made them remember loved ones.
“Oh, this. Solidarity, pal,” wrote Twitter user John Underwood. “My kryptonite is literally any useless object made of pewter which can be engraved with initials for a small extra cost.” (To which, Rachel replied how she uses her late Dad’s tankard as her home office’s pencil pot.)
“This might sound daft,” another Twitter user shared, “but when my Dad passed (4 years ago, now), I took possession of his aftershave (Old Spice). The bottle’s long-since finished, but I won’t throw it away. Big hugs to you xxx.”
“Not stupid at all,” Prior wrote in response. “My dad used Brut & he called it Tuttie. I still have absolutely no idea why.”
Even days after writing her first tweet, it’s as if Prior has uncorked a bottle, as strangers from across the Internet continue to come forward sharing precious details of moments when they missed a loved one most.
I confess, it made me think of my own. My Grandmother Annie loved Tweed talc, and if I ever smell it (or Lily of the Valley) I’m immediately reminded of her. She also loved a good quality nougat that was wrapped in rice paper whenever she could get her hands on one. I can still remember picking the edible rice paper off as a child to get to the tasty chewy nougat inside, and loving every bite. I can’t eat any now, though, without thinking of her.
She was also a brilliant baker, and every time I eat shortbread I get a lump in my throat — nothing will ever taste as good as hers. And though I can go weeks at a time without thinking about her, a sudden flash of memory is all it takes to feel her rough hands in mine once again, smell that Tweed talc, or remember her hugs. Within seconds, it’s like I am a child again, in love with the grandmother who raised me.
What struck me most about Prior’s thread was the very real fact that during the holidays, grief seems to be most palpable for all of us. We see gifts that we would have bought for a loved one who’s no longer here and it feels like a kick to the stomach. Many tweeted stories about breaking down in the middle of department stores, too — often many years after losing their loved one. Others wrote about keeping bizarre or funny items tucked away: out-of-date sweets, broken nativity sets or umbrellas, and even an entire pork pie.
One tweeter had lost her father the night before, but found comfort in the tweets; others had lost loved ones long ago, but the grief was still fresh. Prior shares that she lost her Dad Lynton 10 years ago, but she told the BBC that as soon as she saw the red sweater, the feeling of grief was immediate and overwhelming.
“It felt cathartic to use Twitter, but I didn’t think for one minute my innocuous tweet would catch on,” Prior said. “It’s been bizarre.”
The moment I welled up myself was when a former pupil of Prior’s dad (he was a headmaster at a British school) tweeted: “I had the time of my life at that school, it was everything that a primary school should be. Your dad was a huge part of that. Also, his assemblies were legendary.”
Prior herself admitted she was in tears over that particular tweet, and thanked the former student for sharing.
“It means an incredible amount to me,” she tweeted. “I’m so happy you were happy there. I was too. Twitter can be so lovely.’
The comments that touched me most were from people who at Christmas, saw gifts they would never be able to give; traditions people still felt obliged to continue, gifts bought and wrapped even though they would never be opened … But what surprised me most was just how sweetly Prior replied to all those commenting, until the sheer size of the thread became too great. At a time when Twitter can be filled with such hate and anger, it was incredibly endearing how a community came together, united in grief, yet wanting to support and help each other.
Which if you think about it, is what the holidays should really be all about …