When Mary Lou Quinlan lost her beloved mother, Mary Finlayson, to blood cancer in May, 2006, it was like losing a little piece of herself. Standing in her mother’s empty house that night, stone-faced with grief, Mary Lou felt profoundly and devastatingly alone. “My mother was one of those people who filled the room with her life. Without her, it seemed empty,” Mary Lou, 59, recalls.
But shortly thereafter, while rummaging through her mother’s bedroom closet, Mary Lou unearthed a hidden treasure: She found her mother’s “God Boxes,” a series of containers stuffed with handwritten notes to God on behalf of friends and family. The discovery would change Mary Lou’s life forever. “It was like she was speaking to us—like she had left this gift behind for us to find,” Mary Lou says.
For 20 years, Mary Lou’s mother had penned everyday worries and prayers on slips of paper and tucked them into her God Box as a way of resolving life’s troubles, big and small. The entreaties spanned from the mundane (“Dear God, Please take care of insurance for the Mazda”) to the sobering (“Please, God, give me the answer to restoring red blood cells”). But every single prayer was an act of selflessness and compassion. Reading through the entries in the God Box for the first time, Mary Lou felt surrounded by the enormity of her mother’s love.
“It was a thrill,” Mary Lou says. “I kept pulling out all of the slips of paper like confetti. It was like an emotional, joyous celebration on what was the saddest day of my life.”
Gathering wisdom and courage from the messages in her mother’s God Box, Mary Lou experienced somewhat of a personal awakening. A long-time advertising executive and women’s marketing consultant in New York, Mary Lou had allowed her thriving career to consume her life. “My mom was the ‘out there’ kind—the generous one, always taking care of everybody. I was the busy one—taking care of business, taking care of my own life,” she says.
But the God Box prompted Mary Lou to discover her more empathetic, engaged self. “Since my mom died, and since finding the God Box, I feel like I’ve become more like my mom. I’m more giving, more outward-thinking,” Mary Lou says.
Inspired to keep her mother’s legacy alive, Mary Lou set out to create a movement of giving back through the God Box story. In 2012, she wrote the New York Times bestseller The God Box, a poignant memoir of her relationship with her mother. Tapping into her natural-born gift for public speaking, Mary Lou adapted the book into a one-woman, one-act play—The God Box: A Daughter’s Story—that she performs on stages across the country. All proceeds from ticket sales and books sold at Mary Lou’s events go straight to charity. To date, Mary Lou has raised over $80,000 for causes including cancer and hospice care, hospital research and community educational charities.
“By taking this one-woman play around the country and donating all the money to causes related to my parents—hospice, cancer, women’s health care, education— I feel that I am giving back in a way that my mom would have,” Mary Lou says.
To build the God Box community, Mary Lou has launched a Web site as well as a free iPhone app. Mary Lou encourages everyone, regardless of faith or religion, to start the ritual of keeping a God Box.
“So many thoughts and worries fill our heads and weigh down our shoulders,” she says. The process of inscribing a worry onto a slip paper and depositing it into a box can be wonderfully cathartic, she adds: “When you put a lid on the box, it’s that calm feeling of letting go. Of acknowledging you can not handle everything.”
Above all, the God Box Project is a celebration of the indelible bond between mother and daughter, the permanence of love and the power of simple faith. For Mary Lou, it is also a way of keeping her mother’s voice alive. “The God Box Project is my way of living out my mother’s legacy and keeping her close,” Mary Lou says. “I am paying her love forward.”
In doing so, Mary Lou has arrived at a peaceful acceptance of her mother’s passing. “We are all going to go through the loss of a parent at some point. It’s important to find little ways of keeping that person alive,” Mary Lou says. “In the beginning, I was lost and lonely and missing that person who was my best friend and my soul mate. But over time, I opened up my heart and let her back into my life again. She’s with me everyday.”