--> grief & depression card series

By: Ali O'Grady

it had been several months and the family was ready. we found our spot in the woods. they dug a hole, and started to pour. the ashes began to fall from the bag, and then i saw it — the first chunk of bone.

the last time i saw him they were covering up his sweet face with that baby blue blanket in our living room. there he was. bones.

hysteria. heaving. hyperventilating.

i didn’t know there’d be bones. no one tells you about the bones. i wasn’t ready to see his bones.


there have been a lot of excruciating moments in my journey with grief, but the first glimpse of my father’s ashes ranks pretty high.

my relationship with his ashes has been long (6.5 years and counting) and complex — from downright gut-wrenching, to downright hilarious. i decided it was time to share some of these moments, and some of the fun facts that no one else is going to tell you about ashes.*

#1 there are bones.

it started at the mortuary where i was introduced to the fascinating business of death. the primetime plots with a view, the various casket linings, the big urns, the mini “keepsake” urns — so many fun options!

after some deliberation, i opted for a small silver keepsake urn (maybe 2x2”) to save for myself. it came in a royal blue velvet box. it became the centerpiece of my personal little shrine in my room. it was ugly and unassuming, but it was fire.

despite its prominent location, i kept it closed and avoided it most of the time. only when i was really in the thick of an episode and really ready to push myself over the edge — i’d approach the box.

face the box. fire. open the box. fire. touch the urn. fire. physically jolting, fire.

i would lay on the floor and cling to it, cry to it, talk to it, ache to it, reject it, and eventually return it to its stupid little royal blue box and pass out from the pure and distinct exhaustion that only grief bestows (more on grief episodes and the “grief hangover” soon...).

this went on for a while (months, years). i hated it, but i was attached to it — my home and my shrine and these pathetic moments. i didn’t want to get too far away from it. the fire was hot and raw, but it was the closest thing to him, and i needed him near me.


the rest of the ashes came in a tall, black box. my stepmom was the keeper of this box and, in time, divied up the ashes amongst our extended family to put in their own special places. but, you see, there were still so. many. ashes. they don’t tell you that. ashes are dense, so dense, and those boxes are packed.

#2 there are SO MANY ashes.
PRO TIP: spread generously.)

because no one told us this fun fact, we were left with an awesomely awkward surplus of our favorite human, and you bet i became the eventual keeper of that black box and those remaining ashes. FUN.

this box was much trickier to place (roughly 8x12”). couldn’t face it in my room. couldn’t just throw it in the living room (Craigslist roommates love that). couldn’t just put it in a box...rude. couldn’t put it next to anything he wouldn’t like...stress.


in time, i decided it was time to take him on the road. he didn’t get to finish seeing the sights and i had a few in mind. we had tried to climb Half Dome together once, but got sent down because of a wildfire. it was time to take him to the top. but that meant opening the box.

see my mini urn didn’t open. mini urn didn’t let me see the bones. black box opened. black box smelled. black box had a death certificate. had his name. his name. his death certificate. his death, certified. his bones. black box had his bones. black box was fire.

what was once a nostalgic PB&J Ziploc was instantly and forever tainted as i poured myself a baggie of ashes to take with me. FUN. still jolting. still hysteria. still hyperventilating. less heaving. (progress?)

i put him in my backpacking pack and trekked 8 miles up that mountain with my then boyfriend on a hot, beautiful day. we got to the base of the dome and i interrogated the ranger as to how many people slide off the dome each year, whether they’d already hit their quota, or whether it was me (only like 2 a year he said...FUN!).

i didn’t have gloves and i had recently broken my pinky (don’t ask), both heightening my panic as i realized my grip on the cables would definitely be sub par. but dad was in my pack and we didn’t go that far to only go that far, SO we started up the cables.

(to be clear – i do not have a fear of heights, but i do have a fear of dying when presented with legitimately life-threatening situations, which i 100% felt was the case (the cables are easy, they said. you’ll have fun, they said)).

we made it about halfway, my eyes fixed only on the rock immediately in front of my face — not the breathtakingly beautiful valley or terrifyingly steep dome on all sides. it was painful, but we were doing it — until someone in the group above us began to suffer an intense leg cramp, halting the entire cable operation, and leaving us hanging on the cables in the blazing heat, extending my panic attack for an extra 30 minutes or so — parched and out of water, ears blistering from the sun, arms shaking, mangled pinky sweating, psyche still 100% convinced i was lucky number 3 to slide off the rock this year.

alas, we reached the top and it was finally time for me to have my moment with my dad. i wandered off on my own and scoped out the right spot. found it. i had a slow, sweet, tearful moment as i touched his ashes with my bare hands for the first time. i watched them blow — some taking off in air, and some resting on the dome. i thought about the breeze slowly lifting them away. i pictured them gently wafting their way through the valley and swimming down the river. he’d like the ride. he liked to fly.

i finished and gathered my composure, but quickly realized i had a little situation on my hands. literally. remember fun fact #2 ashes are dense? yeah, well that’s because they are super super fine. and do you know what happens when you have something really really fine on your hands? it doesn’t all just blow away, it sticks and it seeps.

on top of a mountain. out of water. hands filthy, with his remains. what was just sentimental and sweet was instantly morbid and horrifying, and then instantly hilarious. of all people, my father was neat, clean — a little “persnickety” (self-proclaimed). i could see him wrinkling his nose and face in light-hearted disgust, and for a second we laughed together at my predicament, right before i wiped his ashes all over my pants and called it a f*cking day.

#3 ashes — they are fine. they will seep into your hands. (PRO TIP: wipes.)

my dad really liked nature and being outdoors, so i decided to continue to bring him with me on my adventures. my next one was on a solo Eurotrip. he was back in my pack as i ventured through Amsterdam, London, Berlin, and finally throughout Norway. i wanted my trip to culminate in another epic hike to an epic overlook, to give him another epic place to rest, and that i did.

i took planes, trains, and buses, to get to a relatively remote area of Norway to embark on a 17-mile hike to Trolltunga (“the troll’s tongue”) — a unique slab of rock that juts out over the fjords.

as fate would have it, a storm was forecasted for my only day in the area, and storm it did. per usual, i wasn’t prepared. but i find determination generally trumps preparation, and i started stomping my way up that mountain, slipping on slick rocks, and clinging to the ropes that they set up to help idiots like me traverse the steep, muddy mess in poor conditions.

i was hauling ass because i was warned that there was only one bus back and i’d be cutting it close according to the fastest estimates. challenge accepted.

i will spare you the unnecessary details on this one, but trust that the trek was equally terrifying, exhausting, exhilarating, and f*cking jaw-droppingly spectacular (highly recommend, five stars).

i made it to the tongue and by some miracle, the sky cleared just long enough for me to step out onto that slab and take in the sight in all of its magical Norwegian glory. i literally crawled my way to the edge to peek at the pristine, royal blue water flowing 700 meters below. it truly was just beyond.

BUT there was a line and a crowd gathered near the tongue, and it just wasn’t the place to have my moment. so i ventured back a little ways until i found a perfect, quiet little spot overlooking a lake that dad would equally appreciate.

i pulled out my baggie, and queued up a sappy song to suit my mood and add to the intensity and drama that consumes you in these moments. i poured some ashes in my hand, and this time was prepared to give them a nice little blow to help them begin their journey over the fjord. the wind had different plans, and decided instead it would help blow those ashes right back into my face. INto. my. face. dad and i, we laughed. again. so it goes.

#4 ashes — not wind-friendly. proceed with caution.

it’s year 6 with his ashes. he’s sat with me in the passenger seat as i’ve moved from apartment to house to house every year. he backpacked his way through Zion with me, where i literally forgot to spread him altogether. (a testament, perhaps, to how much more present i found myself by grief, year 5.)

today, part of him sits on my desk (in a smaller, prettier box) and oversees daily operations at Thoughtful Human Inc. part of him waits in that black box for his next adventure. 


#5 ashes — there’s no right way to do them. do whatever feels right, whenever it feels right. (but definitely laugh when they blow in your f*cking face.)

Grief Series

---> shop grief & depression card series



have your own story to share?
we want to hear from you! submit your story/reflection to: stories@thoughtfulhuman.co.


*DISCLAIMER: this story is speaking on behalf of one set of ashes from one mortuary. there is probably quite a bit of variation, but we have not done the super fun work of asking other mortuaries how they fire and pack ashes..if you have actual questions or concerns about this, we recommend speaking with your specific mortuary.

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