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When a Child Dies: Memorials that Heal

When a Child Dies: Memorials that Heal

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Updated on Mar 13, 2010

Children embody our love, dedication, and trust in a promising future. In raising them, we tend seeds of talent and character that we hope will blossom over a lifetime.

Which is why, when a child dies, the loss is uniquely devastating.

The unfortunate truth is that at some point in your parenting years, you will know someone in your community who faces such a loss.

And if you’re wondering what you can do, you’re not alone! In many communities, neighbors chip in to help out in the first weeks after a death, but, as grief experts explain, loss will continue to affect everyone long after that, especially children who may be truly perplexed about what all this means. How is it possible to honor the enormity of a child’s death while still moving forward with life? One powerful way to do it is to join together in making a memorial, what Judy Tatelbaum, author of the bestselling book Courage to Grieve, calls “something concrete, a way to remember together.”

Some kids may recognize the word “memorial” from social studies lessons. The Lincoln Memorial, for example, decorates the back of every penny and reminds us of a much-admired president’s legacy. And every year, our nation celebrates its thousands of war dead on Memorial Day. But any life, no matter how short or humble, can be remembered with love. Memorials, Tatelbaum explains, “accomplish two things: they honor our own grief and loss, and they also speak to the world that this person mattered.”

So how can parents and communities memorialize children who have died? As they grieve, experts say, parents and their communities have a special opportunity to discern and celebrate what was uniquely special about that child. Then, it’s important to look for ways to keep those qualities alive. And, experts say, children can help.

As a general rule, suggests the National Association of School Psychologists, it’s wise to move gently and take your time. Memorials can take shape quickly; but they may also take months and years. It’s also important to let memorials take many different forms. One community might want to build something; another might plant a tree; others might plan a series of activities.

Here are some examples from around the country that we find especially touching.

“Joey’s Reading Garden”

From the time he was a baby, Joey Perlmutter loved books—everything from Pat the Bunny to Curious George and beyond. At two, he even got his own library card! It was only natural, then, that Joey looked forward to kindergarten at Juana Briones School in Palo Alto, California, where there would be new teachers to learn from, gardens to dig, friends to make, and books upon books. But then one day, Joey fell ill of a rare, unknown infection. Only four and a half, he died suddenly and unexpectedly. “I felt,” his mother Kim later said, “like part of me died too.”

Together with relatives and friends, Kim and Ken Perlmutter eventually started “Joseph's Journey Fund” which donated more than 1,000 children's books to the school library. Then, with the help of Briones "green team" students and a talented mural designer, Kim transformed a bare courtyard at the school into a child’s reading garden. Today, two years later, students enjoy the sapce at recess and lunch, and for planned outside class time. They help tend planters of flowers, and sit on low, child-size benches inspired by the one Joey had at home. “Joey died,” says his father Ken today, “and Joey lives on.”

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