An interview with Hummingbird & Willow founder, Leanne Viola.
Carl Jung is known for saying, “Only the paradox comes anywhere near comprehending the fullness of life.” This became abundantly more clear to me during my late twenties, when I was essentially shocked out of a black-and-white belief system that I wasn’t even aware I subscribed to. Nuance is the name of the game, I learned. Complexity is customary. Yes, and. Bothness.
When I think about grief, I think about paradoxes. Grief is both surreal and raw. Fuzzy and piercing. Foreign and familiar. It’s deeply personal and yet strangely ubiquitous. Out of all the human experiences, grief stands tall in its complexity. There aren’t necessarily clear-cut answers for grief, which makes it an unlikely topic to build a business around—and yet, Leanne Viola has done so with the launch of her company, Hummingbird & Willow.
Based in Los Angeles, Hummingbird & Willow offers thoughtfully-curated gift boxes to support someone in their grieving journey. To clarify, when I speak of grief in this context, I don’t just mean bereavement. Grief has many faces; it can show up during a separation, a diagnosis, a job loss or an identity change. This distinction is very important to Viola, who initially came up with the idea when multiple people in her circle were in the throes of grief. “A close friend of mine, who I happen to work with as well, lost her son”, Viola told me over video chat. “It just so happened that in the same period of time, I had a friend who was in and out of the hospital with an eating disorder and a friend going through cancer treatment. Another friend had just lost her husband.” Viola found herself in a position where she wanted to reach out and connect; she wanted to express her empathy in an intentional way, but there weren’t a lot of options to do so.
Typically, when someone experiences a loss of any kind, the customary thing to do is to send flowers. Flowers are a thoughtful gesture, but they also require maintenance. Viola and her boss sent a bouquet of flowers to their coworker and friend following the loss of her son, “but ten of her other friends did the exact same thing and she never made it outside to get the flowers. Some of them made it inside. Some of them didn't”, Viola explained. “And she was just in a home full of dying flowers, which she found extremely overwhelming.” Viola credits this experience as the catalyst for starting Hummingbird & Willow, which is aptly positioned as an alternative to flowers for life’s most delicate and difficult moments.
The boxes themselves are undoubtedly special. Viola has hand-picked all the products, and each box has an air of intentionality to it. For instance, she specifically sought out lotus incense, as she was struck by its symbolism: the flower’s beautiful petals bloom from the muddiest of waters. The boxes contain pillow sprays, facial oils, chamomile-infused chocolates—all things intended to heal the heart and ease the mind. Beautiful brands like Mast Brothers, Salt & Stone, vitruvi, and Blume can be found inside. It’s a stark contrast to some of the existing sympathy or condolence boxes out there, many of which are filled with caramel corn, wheels of brie, and mugs featuring oddly tone-deaf phrases. Of course, the intention of a Hummingbird & Willow box is not to “fix” anything; it’s simply a gesture that feels more personal and intentional. What I love most about Hummingbird & Willow is that there’s no immediate action required by the receiver; they can take their time and approach the box on their own terms.
Reaching out during a time of grief can be daunting. Oftentimes we’re at a loss for words. Viola is someone who understands this, but is nevertheless committed to connection. You can tell she is someone who cares deeply about others. While she admits she tends to turn inwards in her own grief, she wholeheartedly believes that Hummingbird & Willow is “ultimately about connecting with people, despite how difficult it is.” Her vision for the company is to create a community beyond the boxes, where grief is made an accessible topic; a place where both the person supporting and the person experiencing grief can know they aren’t alone. “Right now, it just happens to be boxes, but I really want it to be more because there are so many touch points in their grief. What they're experiencing is not a one-time event—there are all these other conversations that happen after the fact that I really want to embody in what we do”, Viola shared. With a background in HR, Viola is particularly passionate about how grief is handled in the workplace. She’s committed to creating higher levels of compassion, understanding, and awareness by helping companies support their employees through their grief on an ongoing basis.
As a first-time entrepreneur, Viola is experiencing the ups and downs of starting your own business. Although, she doesn’t see any of these roadblocks as a chore. In fact, one of the most surprising parts about entrepreneurship to her is how much she enjoys it—that and learning how much she didn’t know she didn’t know. One of Viola's favourite stories about the business so far has to do with the name Hummingbird & Willow. It actually ties back to a phone call Viola had with a friend. She wasn’t set on the company name, so she called her friend, who shared that six hummingbirds had visited her window at her cabin on the Sunshine Coast (hummingbirds are commonly known as spirit guides). Then, to top it off, her friend also explained that she had planted a willow tree in her backyard in memory of her son. “It was this crazy goosebumps moment”, Viola said. “It made me feel like that was the sign that I needed to hear to confirm the name. You don't have to have a sexy name; you just need to follow your heart.” To me, this really embodies what Viola has built with this company; the root of everything is real and it comes from a place of love and connection.
During our interview, Viola opened up about how grief is currently showing up in her own life. “I have two older boys—they’re eighteen and fifteen and they're both in therapeutic treatment programs in Utah right now”, she explained. She called out how hard it is to be with this feeling of “perceived failure” as a parent; to journey towards the empty nesting phase and to be with the grief of thinking you knew something you didn’t. “Even after going through this amazing healing together and discovering each other differently, it still feels like I’ve lost something, even though I’m gaining something new”, she said. Hearing Viola say this brought me back to the thought of paradoxes. Perhaps the greatest paradox of them all, when it comes to grief, is loss and gain.
Written by Alex Falconer