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
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
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
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.