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.”
Born with a serious heart ailment, Emily survived multiple early surgeries, and entered kindergarten at Colin Powell Elementary School, in Centerville, Virginia. Over the next five years, remembers principal Brian Hull, she defied the odds, even joining the Girl Scouts despite her limited mobility. “Emily just adored pink,” Hull remembers, “She wore it all the time, with gusto. And when she smiled, everyone around her glowed.” In fourth grade, however, when she went into the hospital for a planned surgery, her luck ran out. “We got the call at 7 am,” says Hull, “saying she’d died. It was devastating.”
But then, over the next few weeks, he remembers, “what began to blossom was a sense that children and staff just wanted to do something to remember Emily.” In partnership with Emily’s parents, schoolwide tributes to Emily included a special shady reading corner on the playground, and a pledge, led by her classmates, that all 1,100 students would honor her personal fourth grade goal of reading ten books over the year. Emily’s parents also planted a pink dogwood at the school entrance, which students and friends then decorated with pink bows and doo-dads. But Hull’s favorite memorial remains the elevator that Emily often rode when she moved from one classroom to the next. “I forget who thought of it,” he says, “but we ended up draping this pink material on the ceiling, turning the whole thing pink.” Today, nearly two years later, that pink elevator remains, and nobody has any plans to change it.
A Father’s “Caring Bridge”
Unlike many parents faced with the loss of a child, Doug and Lauri Bunnell had lots of warning. Their son Zachary was born with a rare eye cancer, but to his parents’ relief, surgery and chemotherapy worked, and Zach went on to develop normally. But then, just before his tenth birthday, the cancer came back. Six months of excruciating chemotherapy and surgery brought a short remission, but when the cancer returned for good, Zach, his parents, and his doctors made a heartbreaking decision: no more chemotherapy, only supportive care. Four months later, surrounded by loving family, Zach died at home.
Throughout Zach’s illness, his father was also serving as pastor of a thriving congregation in Bellingham, Washington. “There was so much sense,” Doug remembers, “of ‘what’s going on’? It became excruciating to talk about.” And so Doug turned to a high-tech tool: a website calling “Caringbridge,” on which he maintained a journal accessible to family, friends, and concerned community members. When Zach died, friends and family donated to Doug’s church and to a local theater that Zach had loved and performed in; but Doug’s chronicle, which covered every step of his journey with Zach and in its immediate aftermath, became a memorial in itself. In the face of unbearable sadness, the journal kept alive the very best of Zach and his family: their frank honesty in the face of Zach’s illness, and their enduring commitment to one another. Today, at the request of parishioners and mentors, Bunnell is crafting that journal into a full-length book.
For each of these survivors, then, as for the communities that came together around them, memorials became a powerful way to acknowledge terrifying losses and then to heal from them. All too often, says Bunnell nowadays, “death is seen as a problem. It’s really a natural part of life.” He still has not found one single word to describe his life now as a parent who has lost a child, but he has no regrets. “We had ten years with Zach,” he says, “and I would take those ten years again.” Kim Perlmutter became so inspired by the reading garden project that she went on to create a thriving small business in landscape design. And Brian Hull still marvels at the enduring gifts of Emily’s spirit at Colin Powell Elementary School. “Regardless of language or cultural origins,” he says, “everyone grieved. It gave us a sense of family. We all did that together.”