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When a Child Dies: Memorials that Heal (page 2)

When a Child Dies: Memorials that Heal

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Updated on Mar 13, 2010

“Emily’s Elevator”

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.”

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