THE WASHINGTON POST – Sharon Hebert’s world slammed to a halt just before the coronavirus pandemic started. It was late February when her 15-year-old daughter, Helen, died – tragically and unexpectedly.
Peeking into Helen’s barren bedroom in March, Hebert noticed her daughter’s decade-old, white sewing machine.
“I had never sewed anything in my life, but my daughter loved to sew,” said Hebert, 53, a mother of two in Norfolk County, Mass. “If she had lived, she would have been at the sewing machine making face masks for people.”
So Hebert tentatively approached the machine. She watched video tutorials online and taught herself how to make protective masks. One mask rapidly multiplied into hundreds, and now, eight months later, Hebert has made thousands – all in Helen’s honour.
Mask-making, she said, has helped her heal: “I wasn’t able to get therapy because everything shut down. I had to create my own therapy, and this was it.”
Since the end of March, Hebert and her family have been making and selling masks to their community of Medway. The double-layered masks – which come in various sizes, prints and fabrics – cost between USD5 and USD8. A fraction of the money goes toward covering the cost of the material, but beyond that, Hebert gives every dollar to the local food pantry. So far, she has donated nearly USD16,500. By Christmas, she’s aiming for USD20,000.
Hebert lives with her son, Walter, 20, and her mother, who requires round-the-clock care after suffering a stroke two years ago.
“She took a turn for the worse after Helen died. But the masks have helped bring the whole family together, and my mother has been able to get involved, too,” Hebert said, adding that the mask-making has been a collective effort, with help from her sister, niece, sister-in-law and others in the family.
During the spring and summer months, they sold the masks from the front lawn of the family’s home, but as the weather cooled, Hebert recently set up shop in her garage, and it is open every day of the week during daylight hours. She also sells the masks through her Facebook page and plans to continue making them for the foreseeable future.
Keeping her hands busy engages her mind, and that keeps her crushing grief at bay.
“Every time I try to slow down and say ‘okay, I’m done,’ I fall off a cliff emotionally. My gardens and my yards are all overgrown, and my house has never been such a mess. But it’s very comforting to be able to sit here and sew all day,” Hebert said.
“It’s so sad that Helen’s not here because this is what she was all about,” Hebert added. “There are no words to describe the amazing girl my Helen was.”
Helen, who had Asperger’s syndrome, was an avid seamstress and especially enjoyed creating clothing for her dolls. She also loved to cook and garden and was well-versed in current events.
“I had a feeling that Helen was going to be a journalist. She had what it takes, and she knew everything about the world and foreign governments,” said Hebert, who declined to detail how her daughter died, saying the specifics were too painful and personal to describe.
But she said her daughter was deeply disturbed by the political climate in the country.
“Helen could really feel the hostilities in the world,” Hebert said. “She was a very bright kid, but she also felt things too intensely.”
For Hebert, losing Helen has been unspeakably traumatising. Making the masks, she said, has given her family purpose and helped it function.
“When something really devastating happens in your life, the best thing you can do to heal is to help somebody else,” said Hebert, who was self-employed and previously sold antiques at a local shop, which closed during the pandemic.
“I’ve met the most amazing people in the last eight months, people who have just popped in to offer support,” she continued.
That includes Sharon Ross, 58, whose son was in Helen’s grade at school. When Ross heard Hebert was making masks, she visited with her son to buy some.
“She has turned her tragedy into something wonderful,” said Ross, who has repeatedly bought masks from Hebert and vouched for their exceptional quality. “I especially love that she does it on Helen’s sewing machine. I think it’s comforting and, in some ways, healing for her to do that.”
In special cases, Hebert offers customised masks, tailoring the garments to an individual’s needs and desires.
Kerry McCarthy, 47, for example, lives in Hebert’s neighbourhood with her two special-needs sons. Hebert offered to make the boys custom masks.
“She is amazing and measured everything and did quite a few trials,” McCarthy said. McCarthy’s five-year-old son, who has a genetic disorder, has features that required the mask to have different dimensions. Her other son, who is 10, has Down syndrome, and Hebert is working to make a mask that is user-friendly and breathable for him.
“Sharon is doing what Helen would have done. She is living out her daughter’s legacy,” McCarthy said.
Hebert’s story was brought to the attention of The Washington Post after she sent in a submission form in response to a recent article about a woman whose pandemic-induced anxiety and depression led her to seek comfort in conspiracy theories. One day, the woman spiralled out of control and destroyed a mask display at a Target. Video footage of the incident went viral.
In response to the article, Hebert cited her own story: “Interesting to read about a woman who blames stress for destroying a face mask display. In February, I found my 15-year-old daughter dead in her bedroom, my mother had a massive stroke and I’ve lost my job,” she wrote. “Instead of destroying a face mask display, I sat at my daughter’s sewing machine and began sewing masks.”
Hebert recognises that the world is in a dark period and that everyone is experiencing varying degrees of grief amid the pandemic. She understands that many have turned to conspiracy theories and other dangerous behaviours to try to make sense of it all and find a way to cope.
But she said she hopes her decision to find meaning in her mourning will propel others to do the same.
“Everybody is so focussed on the big picture, but what about your own family, your next-door neighbour, your community?” Hebert said. “It has to start small, and then it feeds on itself. Can you imagine if all the people who have wasted time on conspiracy theory research focussed on the well-being of their neighbours instead, how much better off we would all be?”