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About Project 2: Commemorating a loved one

By Jackie O'Neil Sandusky
Coordinator of Pre-School, Children & Teen Grief Support Groups
Mercy Hospital, Coon Rapids, MN

I remember my son writing in a school assignment long ago, "The O'Neil family went on with their lives." They went on, he and I, after the death of his father and my husband in a motorcycle accident. What seemed quite simple in the words of a child, though, really wasn't simple at all. My grief was overwhelming after my husband's death. As a grieving parent, I learned how rituals commemorating our loved one soon became an important part of our grieving process.

The dictionary describes the word commemorate as: "to call to remembrance. . . to mark by some ceremony or observation . . . to honor the memory of." A funeral is a ceremony of remembrance for friends and relatives. Once the funeral is over, relatives and friends go back home and move on with their lives, but your family continues to grieve. This article will discuss some different ways you and your family might commemorate your loved one.

Planting a tree, a shrub or flowers in a cemetery, park, or school yard, are ways to memorialize a person who has died; a living symbol to honor the life. (Contract your city or school about restrictions for planting on public property). Or, you may want to plant something on your own property. Children can help pick out what is to be planted, and do the digging, planting, and watering. If a flower garden is chosen, each family member can choose their own, or the loved one's, favorite flowers. As you work, you might talk about the topic of living and dying, the cycle of spring to autumn. (It is best to choose hardy perennial plants which are less likely to die and compound your loss.) A potted plant can be placed at the grave site or in your home in remembrance of your loved one also. Leaves and flowers can be pressed and kept in a memory box or book.

A "memory box" can be made to hold items precious to surviving family members. The box can be ready-made - for example, a shoe box which held shoes that belonged to the loved one. The box can then be decorated with crayons, markers, colored pencils, paints, construction paper, beads, sequins, pieces of colored fabric, pasta, or seeds. Fill the box with memorabilia such as pictures of the loved one, a drivers license, passport, wallet, coins, fishing, golfing, sewing items, dried flowers, military patches or medals. While your children decorate the box, encourage them ask questions, share stories and to reminisce. Possessions can offer comfort while helping you and your family move through the grieving process towards healing.

My five-year old son enjoyed making a picture album of only pictures of his father. I picked an album with plastic sleeves to help preserve the pictures, knowing he would be handling the book many times. I found pictures of his father involved in different activities, and picture of my son with his Dad. I left the album out on the table where he could look at it anytime he wanted. There were many times he would ask questions about the pictures, for example, "What was Dad doing in this picture?" "Was I there with Dad?" "Was our dog with Dad?" The album became an important focus for my young son growing up without his father. Older children or adults could add narratives to be placed by each picture explaining what was happening and describing qualities of the person.

For the funeral, families often make a collage of pictures depicting the life story of a deceased person. Children can make a collage by cutting pictures from magazines that remind them of the person, such as their hobbies, favorite foods, pets, leisure activities, favorite sports, etc. Allow your children to come up with their own ideas. Photos can also be added to the collage. As your children grow up, they can add even more pictures and stories. A collage can be placed on a refrigerator, framed and hung on a wall, or placed poster style in a child's room. Another version of the collage might be created from magazine pictures and words portraying feelings that children have about the person who died. This commemorative activity, like many of the others in this article, can be a springboard for discussion about your loved one.

Writing or drawing is another form of commemoration. As a grief support group facilitator, I have witnessed children, from pre-school to teens, writing in journals, creating poems, stories and songs, and drawing posters to remember the person who died. Children of all ages can do this and can display their work. Writings and drawings can be placed in the the coffin or a shirt pocket of the loved one. Many teens have composed articles for a class project, and some have even read them at the funeral or graveside service. There are no limits to how we can express our love for the person who died.

Making donations or volunteering in the memory of the loved one is another means of remembrance. Families may make donations on special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries and religious holidays. I remember a young man from a teen grief support group whose brother died after drinking and driving. The teen was asked to speak to a class in his school on this issue. He was amazed at the questions that were asked of him, but he was comforted by talking about the accident and helping others understand the consequences of drinking and driving. Most importantly, he was commenorating his brother throughout the presentation. He was so well received that he has continued to do this volunteer speaking.

In this article we have discussed ways you as a parent can help yourself and your children to commemorate your loved one. Whether a death happened years ago or yesterday, it is never too late to create a private or public memorial. If we avoid remembrance, we can leave ourselves with unanswered questions and unexpressed emotions. Reviewing the events of the death and sharing memories of your loved one is a necessary part of family mourning.

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