The Doc Project·Personal Essay

Grieving for my brother lost in a landslide, I wove a shroud out of his clothes

Christy Thompson grew up in rural British Columbia with her older brother Kelly. Thompson was the quiet and reserved one while Kelly was an explorer. Years after Kelly disappeared while hiking the Annapurna circuit in Nepal, Thompson found her own unique ritual to cope.

Christy Thompson’s brother went missing in Nepal in 1995, but his body was never recovered

After Christy Thompson completed the shroud made from her late brother Kelly's knitted clothes, it became a fixture on her couch, where she and her kids cuddle up underneath it. (Submitted by Christy Thompson)

In 1995, at age 27, my brother, Kelly travelled to Nepal to hike the Annapurna circuit, a mountainous 200 km trek. On November 10, a landslide tore through the remote village where he was staying and my brother disappeared.

Not wanting to feel more helpless than we already did, my father, some close friends and I travelled to Nepal to search for Kelly. I wrote in my journal: "We have begun a journey not knowing where it will lead us, and I am very frightened. Kelly would be brave and so must I."

Kelly's body was never recovered. 

My brother's death, sudden, unexpected and far from home, was surrounded by deep ambiguity. I had lost my lifeline. Was I still a sister? Was I now an only child? How do you mourn without a body?

Bagarchhap, the landslide area in Nepal. (Christy Thompson)

In many cultures, grieving is a public act, where communal rituals offer time and space to mourn openly. Here in Canada, many funeral and burial practices have been commodified and often disempower those closest to the loss. We are expected to get back to work and move on with our lives, without time to be with, and make meaning from, our experience.

After losing Kelly, I kept some of his clothing and would pull them out of my closet from time to time, try them on, letting emotions and memories flood me. Over the years, they have acted as transitional objects in my grieving process, helping me navigate life without him. 

Kelly and Christy Thompson were always close, even as kids. (Submitted by Christy Thompson)

My dad had also kept some of Kelly's garments: a knitted sweater, a Bolivian vest, a wool tuque — items Kelly had collected on his many travels. Two years ago, my dad asked me if I might want to do something with these objects.

As a textile artist and art therapy student, I decided to weave a burial shroud to hold my brother's missing body. This process created a symbolic ritual to keep him safe from a violent death that was beyond my control.

Christy Thompson in the process of unravelling the yarn from her brother Kelly's clothes. (Submitted by Christy Thompson)

In the deep cold of the Montreal winter, I methodically unraveled Kelly's clothes, a process that reminded me that grief is the undoing of a life once known. Every inch of the fibre passed through my hands as I loosely wound the yarn into balls and wondered, "Are there traces of your DNA in the fibres?"

Weaving on a floor loom (a gift from my father shortly after the death of my brother), I became aware that each thread is made stronger when interwoven with another, reminding me of the importance of community in the context of mourning.

During the long hours of sitting and weaving, my own mortality felt very present. I was aware of my own aging, time passing for me without Kelly, while he remains forever young.

Christy Thompson's last photo with her brother Kelly before he went to Nepal. (Submitted by Christy Thompson)

When we had traveled to Nepal in 1995 to search for my brother, I came home with earth from the landslide where he was buried and I decided to turn the earth into ink to mark the passing of time as I wove. I sifted the earth down to a fine powder and was reminded of human ashesAdding liquid, it was muddy but had a beautiful metallic quality to it.

Every time I sat down to weave, I painted a line of ink on a long paper taped to the wall in front of my loom. Sometimes the ink would drip down the wall and gather on the moulding at the floor, reminding me to let go of control and surrender to the process.

Christy, working at the loom. (Submitted by Christy Thompson)

There were tears as I worked, but I actually laughed a lot, too. There was this one moment where I was unwinding a sweater and was so frustrated because I couldn't find the starting thread (the maker had hidden it well)!

While tugging and unwinding the threads, a large tangled mass formed on the floor.

Searching for order, I eventually wound it into balls. At one point, looking down, I realized I had wound two balls of yarn but they were actually connected. It was all one thread. And it just made me think of Kelly's playfulness and how he was always trying to lighten my more melancholic spirit.

Two balls of yarn unravelled from Kelly Thompson's clothes. (Christy Thompson)

After three months, the shroud was complete. At five metres, it is long, heavy and awkward to handle, reminding me of my early days of grieving.

Weaving the shroud offered me a bridge to a new understanding of my loss, one that honours my ongoing relationship with my brother. Through the process of unraveling and reconstructing I realized that, while feelings of loss for someone close may last a lifetime, so too may the relationship with them remain an active and integral part of one's life.

A close-up of the shroud (left) and the finished piece hanging (right). (Christy Thompson)

Now the shroud has become a way of remembering, communing with him, introducing him to my children and keeping his presence alive in my family. I remember thinking at the time of his disappearance that it would be impossible to live without him, and yet … here I am.

About the producer

Mira Burt-Wintonick (Andrew Budziak)

Mira Burt-Wintonick is an award-winning audio producer, story editor and documentary filmmaker. She is the senior editor, co-producer and co-creator of CBC's Love Me. For 10 years, she helped shape CBC's WireTap, in collaboration with host Jonathan Goldstein, producing, writing, editing and mixing the weekly program. Her work has aired on This American LifeThe TruthSnap JudgmentThe Heart and CBC's Outfront, among others. She specializes in seamless editing and rich sound design, and brings a unique storytelling sensibility to her work.

This documentary was edited by Alison Cook.