New York State Funeral Directors Association

Mary Kirsten has good days and bad days.

Since the death of her husband Ray, she calls bad ones “cliff days.”

“A smell, a sound or a song can just put you over the edge where you just fall apart,” Kirsten said.

On those days, she clutches the handmade teddy bear she created from one of her late husband’s favorite shirts.

“When I have these cliff days, I hold the bear, and I hold onto him,” Kirsten said.

It’s a comfort the Upstate-NY widow is sharing with others.

A few months after her husband passed away, Kirsten, 58, started a home-based business “Ray of Hope.”

She’s crafting original bears she calls “Bear Hugs” from the clothing of loved ones – those who have passed away, those who are missed, and for people going through difficult challenges in their lives.

“I wanted to bring this comfort to other people who are suffering,” she said.



Her offerings have grown to include bears for those awaiting a military service member’s return – and bears for children fighting cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

Kirsten finds this work to be therapeutic.

And she’s keeping alive the knowledge passed down from her mother, who taught her how to sew when she was young.

The mother of seven – six girls and one boy – started sewing costumes for her children long before creating bears to help people find some solace while grieving.

“It’s therapy to me, to be able to give the comfort that I feel from having my bear,” Kirsten said.

Since she started, Kirsten estimates she’s made 500 bears – including the ones she gives away for benefits and functions.

She’s sent bears to several U.S. states, including Oregon and Louisiana, and she filled an order for two that were sent to Norway.


People aren’t always sure what to do with a loved one’s belongings after they pass away.Mary Kirsten and the late Ray Kirsten, may he Rest in Peace

It took Kirsten more than four years to move her late husband’s clothing out of the closet.

“It’s hard to let go,” she said.

Kirsten has heard people lament not saving clothing that could be turned into a keepsake they could turn to – and hug – during tough times.

Any type of material will do. T-shirts and military uniforms, formal wear and wedding dresses can all be used to craft a bear.

She’s found some older kids aren’t eager for a bear – so she began making quilts out of clothing remnants and pillows, too.

The most difficult part of the job, she said, is getting the word out. Those who might be interested are reeling with the grief.

“Approaching somebody who has just lost a loved one is really difficult. I still mourn for my husband five and a half years later. I understand that,” Kirsten said.

When she isn’t giving them away for free, Kirsten charges as much as $50 for a bear.

Small-sized bears are 18-inches tall and cost $40; 22-inch bears are $50. Bears Kirsten made from the wedding gown of a beloved grandmother

Wording – such as “Papa” or “I Love You” on the paws, is $5 more.

Crafting each bear takes about four hours, Kirsten said.

She makes them when she’s not working at one of her two part-time jobs.

Kirsten isn’t expecting to make a bundle from her Mary’s Ray of Hope workshop, but it’s work she won’t pass up now.

“I’m not in it for the money. I’m in it to bring comfort to people,” she said.

“When you hand somebody a bear, their eyes tear up and they hug you and thank you … it’s all worth it,” Kirsten said.

Learn More:

Link to Mary Kirsten's Ray of Hope Facebook Page:



EdsPhotoEdward Munger Jr.
Communications & Social Media Specialist
NYS Funeral Directors Association