When a Child Dies #8 . . . Memorials
One of the great fears we grieving parents have is that others will forget our child. For a while people surround us and talk about our son or daughter.
But then their lives go on. And ours don’t. We get caught in a black hole where the rules of time don’t seem to apply. We move from numb to angry to sad to hopeful to numb to desperate to . . . . Well, you get it. It’s a bit of an emotional merry-go-round.
And as their lives move forward, as they return to their jobs, as they await summer little league, as their kids move on, we fear that they’ll forget.
I know of no greater gift that you can give a grieving parent than this: promise that you won’t forget their child! And follow through with that by keeping memories alive.
An important part of the grief process for families is to build their own memorials. It’s not uncommon in the beginning days of loss for sorrowful parents to turn their house into a kind of shrine built around their son or daughter. That’s an attempt to say “she lived,” “this is what she was like,” “we won’t ever forget her.”
But eventually, shrines may not be helpful. For, as hard as this is to hear, life must go on. I don’t say that flippantly. I had many days, months, perhaps years, when I wasn’t sure it would go on.
But it does. Wiser in some ways; sadder in many ways; even hopeful in other ways. And this new existence recognizes that life cannot be built around the one who has died, though they remain a vital part of who we are. As an example of how tricky this is, most parents who have lost children stumble on the new acquaintance who asks, “How many kids do you have?” I usually say, “two boys.” But a part of me wants to say, “three—two sons and a daughter—but only the sons are living.” (And I still say this at times, depending on who’s asking and the circumstances. But usually the former answer fits the occasion.)
But even though shrines may not always be helpful, memorials always are. They provide us ways of keeping the blessing of our son or daughter alive.
Here are some examples of our memorials:
1. Items and special spaces with great significance. We still call our daughter’s bedroom “Megan’s room.” Of course, now it’s really Reese and Ellie’s (our granddaughters) room. It has their bunk beds, their toys, etc. But when they’re old enough, they’ll know that this special playroom is named for the aunt they never knew. And they’ll eventually figure out that the door going into that bedroom is different! We decided not to replace the door; it’s just too special. Since Megan was good (or bad!) about slipping out at night, this door allowed us to lock her in so she couldn’t get out, without letting her feel trapped. We’d leave the top half open so she could see out (a child without her challenges could have climbed out easily) and so we could easily hear her; but the top half would be closed so there was no danger that she’d walk out and leave the house. We still keep a huge family photo up in the living room. Many times people have asked about her after seeing it. There are other things: her stroller, her favorite stuffed cat, etc. They help us tell stories and remember. The house isn’t built around these, but they’re still very much a part of our lives.
2. Anniversaries. For many years after Megan’s death, we shared a birthday cake on August 26. And we invited friends to come over on November 21 (the anniversary of her death) to share “Megan stories.” On the first anniversary of the death, friends held a special service. One, a gifted writer, had authored a piece about her influence in his life; another, a gifted pianist, had composed a piece in her honor.
3. Acts of hope and thanks. Part of what we do is remember that grief will not have the final word. So for fifteen years, we gathered with others who’d been especially close to Megan at her grave at sunrise on Easter morning to read part of 1 Corinthians 15 and to give thanks for her life. (Sadly, we haven’t been able to continue the tradition the last couple years because I’ve been speaking out of town.) Also, for about ten years, we would take roses by her grave on Valentine’s Day. It was a way of remembering how she embodied God’s love for us. And, of course, Megan’s stocking still gets put out at Christmas.
Though we need to weep your loss,
You dwell in that safe place in our hearts
Where no storm or night or pain can reach you. – John O’Donohue
Now, this is the most important part of this particular post (as is usually the case!): your comments. Could others who have lost children and grandchildren tell us about your own ways to remember? What celebrations, what symbols, what memories around the house have helped you honor and remember your child or grandchild?