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When a Child Dies #8 . . . Memorials

2012 February 16
by Mike

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.

family photo with all five of us!


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:

the divided door into Megan's room


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 pro hgh 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?

23 Responses leave one →
  1. February 16, 2012

    One other memorial . . .

    On the 10th anniversary of my ministry at the Highland Church in Abilene, they gave Diane and me a much-cherished gift: they established a special endowment fund at ACU called the Megan Cope Memorial Fund. Every year, there are students who receive some financial assistance through this endowment. We’re so thankful for a spiritual family that understands the importance of memorials!

  2. Ginger permalink
    February 16, 2012

    In December of 2003, I watched my “second” family join your club as they buried their son after he sustained fatal injuries in a car wreck. It was a horrific experience that continues to teach me many things about God, life, death, friendships, family and people. Nathan was hysterical and one time even made a Drill Sergeant laugh – a task that is pretty much impossible in the Marines. He was really that funny. He and 2 brothers and sisters all have the same mother who is extremely wise and beautiful and also has a great sense of humor. He and his sister would often end up in a battle of wits being displayed in a back and forth banter of “Your momma” jokes (your mommas so fat…). It was hysterical to hear. Now on his birthday every year, his sister continues this tradition by holding an online contest of “Your Momma Jokes” with the winner receiving a T-shirt. It is a beautiful tribute to a young man who touched and continues touch the lives of many people.

    In addition, the church in which Nathan grew up set up a Scholarship Fund in his honor to help send kids to camp, something Nathan did quietly on his military salary. The base where he was stationed also set up an annual award in his honor. His myspace page is maintained as well and people often check in and leave messages, stories or thoughts for his family to read.

  3. ReJoycingToday permalink
    February 16, 2012

    Ah yes, the dreaded “how many kids do you have?” question. I often say “just” four as a way of silently acknowledging our missing son.

    We are blessed to have had family and friends who used their artistic talents to make “memorials” for us after our six year old son died in 1992 (neuroblastoma). We have a portrait, a cross-stitch and a quilt that are a part of our home decor now. Another friend gave us an antique travel chest that now holds a few of Peter’s possessions along with cards and other bits and pieces from two years of cancer treatments. The kids at our home church in Austin (Westover Hills) planted a tree and placed a small plaque with his name under it. I even have couple of poems and a booklet of antidotes written in his memory.

    Our situation is somewhat unique in that we have moved many times since our son died, so we don’t have people around us who knew Peter. I am very thankful to our friends in many locations who have willingly let us tell them about him.

  4. Lanny permalink
    February 16, 2012

    I want to affirm that friends and extended family are essential. They contain the truth of the person—not the airbrushed person we’re tempted to turn them into. And we’ve found that the lingering memories of classmates help carry us. It’s one things for adults to recall a memory; it’s another for a teenager to offer what they might remember.

  5. Dane permalink
    February 16, 2012

    Mike, even after 10 years, when asked “how many kids,” I still say two. I feel guilty if I don’t. Depending on who’s asking, sometimes I’ll explain, other times I won’t. Still makes me feel good to say two.

  6. Vera Smith permalink
    February 16, 2012

    I have a story too and hope to tell you. For right now I just want to thank God for this website, Mike Cope and all the people who have commented on When a child dies.

  7. Heather permalink
    February 16, 2012

    I am only a grieving sibling, however I feel compelled to post on behalf of my parents. Still, watching my parents grieve is one of the hardest things about losing Tyler.
    I still say I have 9 siblings when asked. Partly because no one generally asks about specifics when there are that many, and partly because there ARE 10 of us – I long to talk about Tyler and the fact that someday my husband and my child will see him and meet him face to face.
    We do many things to remember Tyler, but as the years pass and he isn’t the topic of conversation quite so often, one recently developed tradition is to go camping in Colorado at the same place we camped as a family when we were kids every year during the week of June 11 – Tyler’s birthday. Tyler loved the outdoors. More than that, he loved the campfires, the rain, the adventures, fishing, quiet, and being with the family. As he got older, when we camped he was the last to go to sleep and the first to get up (at around 4) to build a fire. So as our family has grown and we are spread out all over the states, this is a pre-scheduled event that everyone can plan for. Of course, not everyone can make it every year, but we all long to. We celebrate Tyler’s life for that week in particular. We laugh and tell stories to our children about what he was like. We sit around the campfire and sing of heaven and Jesus returning to take the rest of us home, or attempt to at least as most of us weep. And when things get frustrating with 26 plus people in the campgrounds, we remember how he used to take his truck out in the mud hoping it would get stuck so he could have fun trying to get it out. Tyler would have LOVED these trips.
    I have found in the years since Tyler died that I always want to talk about him, but sometimes it seems forced in to a limited window of time and I feel guilty that I really do have to go take care of something rather than reminisce. Having a week free of destructions allows us to celebtate his life and grieve his death in this world without constraint among those who love us and him the most.

  8. February 16, 2012

    It took nearly eight years before I could say “I have two children” rather than “three” without feeling guilty, as though I was forgetting my son Kenny. We still have a family birthday celebration every year on July 31st, with cake and ice-cream and every year, there are still people who send balloons in memory of Kenny. Also, we have a chest that sits in our living room which we keep pictures, clothing, and some of the stuffed animals that we bought for Kenny. That includes the first thing we ever bought for him, an outfit which would have fit him at 4-months old and though he never got to wear it, it is special because it is the first thing we ever bought him. Lastly, in my office is a picture of my holding my son which sits right next to a picture of my dad and I.

    Because we remember,

    Rex

  9. February 16, 2012

    Oh yeah…I should also say that both Laura and I are always grateful when people ask about our first son too.

  10. February 16, 2012

    Rex – Your wise words (from experience) all through this series have been a blessing. Thanks so much, and for the promotion on Twitter.

    Heather – Being with your family through that loss was among the most sacred ground of my life. I’ve told many, many people about Tyler. Who at that age makes a LIST of who he wants to be as a person of God?

    Vera – I look forward to hearing that story.

    Dane – I understand! Only you can know. Actually for me it often goes like this. “How many children do you have?” “Two boys.” “How old are they?” “29 and 19.” “Wow, spread apart!” “Well, actually there was a daughter in between.” And then the conversation opens up!!

    Rejoycing – Excellent point. So many, in our mobile world, are not in a place where people knew their child. Do you have extra ideas on how to keep memories alive (or help create memories with new friends) in such a situation?

    And thanks so much, Ginger and Lanny.

  11. Traci permalink
    February 16, 2012

    I haven’t experienced losing a child, but your post reminded me of a light hearted story. When I was a child in rural WV some new people moved into the “neighborhood”. Wanting to meet everyone and become a part, they asked fellow neighbors about their families. They were shocked to learn that one man didn’t know how many children he had. After being asked he said, “Ten or eleven.” I guess this conversaton happened several times before the lady finally asked someone else why Link didn’t know how many kids he had. Finally she surfaced under the accent to learn, “Ten are living.” I guess that was how he decided to answer your queston Mike.

  12. February 16, 2012

    You’re invited to participate in our first Pepperdine Church Relations webinar on 2/23/12 at 1:00 CST. You can register here for the free workshop: http://www.pepperdine.edu/churchrelations/#. The title is “When a Child Dies: Ministering to Those in Grief.” I’ll be the speaker for this first webinar. Since this is our first one, we’re making room for 100 participants. You’ll be invited to submit questions, to be answered at the end of the program.

    The following webinars will be with Tim Pownall (3/22/12), Alan Beard (4/19/12), Tim Spivey (5/24/12), and Connie Horton (6/26/12).

  13. Debby Smith Krpec permalink
    February 16, 2012

    Hi Mike,

    My sweet brother, Steve Smith, sent me your website February 11, the fourth anniversary of my sons death. I have so enjoyed reading the stories and have sent your website to several friends who are also “in the club”. Thank you. Though we hate the fact that there are others living this nightmare, it in some way makes us not feel so alone.

    Brandon died a tragic death, drug overdose. We will never know the specifics, doesn’t change the fact that he is gone, but we do know that he was a loving, caring, intelligent human being. He will always be our son, though not here physically, forever in our hearts. He was 28 and had three loves in his lifetime.

    Brandon was cremated and we decided to take his remains to places he loved. The Pacific Ocean, the Guadalupe River, and since my husband is of Czech heritage and Brandon always wanted to go to Prague, we travelled to Prague. My husband and I, Kaci (our daughter), Morgan (his first love and still a very dear friend) and another close high school friend made the trip to Prague. We decided to fly over the area our ancestors had come from in a hot air balloon to scatter his ashes. It was a beautiful experience and one I know Brandon would have loved. We feel he lives everywhere.

    Morgan has married and is expecting her first son later this month. For a baby gift, I made her a quilt with colorful hot air balloons. I have since learned of several more of his friends expecting and will be making them meaningful quilts as well.

    We were also able to plant a hummingbird garden at one of the local nursing homes in Brandon’s memory. He loved hummingbirds, and after his death we were told a sweet story that has made them become a “sign” or symbolic of him.

    Steve had a beautiful portrait painted for us by an Abilene artist. I have a memorial in my home
    where it hangs. He is a fabulous big brother. You are blessed to know him.

    Thank you so for writing this series. I’ve looked forward to reading it everyday and hope to join in your webinar.

    I wish you peace and comfort on your journey.

  14. February 16, 2012

    One thing that I love that we do to remember my daughter (who died when she was 3 days old), was that we planted a tree in the backyard. Actually, our Sunday School did. It is a pink magnolia, and every spring it grows girly, pink blooms. Beneath it is her temporary grave marker. Every year on her birthday we release balloons to Heaven.

  15. February 16, 2012

    Tomorrow we will place 12 white roses at Connor’s grave, because it was three years ago he went home. White is so pure and holy. He was only 12 , still believed in Santa and slept with a blanket, so innocent . Along with Star Wars balloons. Go to his tree that his middle school planted for him, more balloons green and purple his favorite colors. Drink Mt Dew, maybe go see Star Wars in 3D, and then take my movie stubs out to his grave and tell him all about it. Really haven’t settled into this New normal, and can not bring myself to say I have 2 sons when I have 3. Today is just one of those days, I am always so painfully aware of what happened in my life and how in an instant your world changes. The day before is always so much harder for me than the actual day. Lord come quickly.

  16. Kim permalink
    February 16, 2012

    This is a link to a blog my friend Kiera wrote today on the 4th anniversary of her daughter Zoe’s death. It is a beautiful meditation on loving and grieving and healing. It’s so worth your time.

    http://3sorrells.blogspot.com/

  17. Barbara permalink
    February 17, 2012

    A friend posted this site and I thought it would be much too painful to read. Though I’ve only read a few days of it, I cling to the thought that one day it won’t hurt nearly as bad as today. Our 36 year old son died just five days ago leaving a wife pregnant with his first child. While we are in the depth of mourning and sorrow, I additionally watch the unfathomable pain of his wife. At times the pain is so unbearable. My heart is broken and shattered, but my faith in God is neither broken nor shattered.

  18. February 17, 2012

    My 82 year old aunt still sends me “texts” via snail mail. Once she put in parentheses after the date, “(David Charles’ birthday)”. It was simple and powerful.

  19. February 23, 2012

    Re–the above comment, he was our brother who passed on more than thirty years ago. My aunt sends us kind memorials in a few ways

  20. Kerri Scahefer permalink
    March 2, 2012

    OUr son was 10 months old when he lost his battle with leukemia but won his reward of heaven in June of 2007. Five year san the greif keeps happening like a ripple int he pond. Thankfully, his life also allows faith to grow just like those same ripples on the pond. Things we do a as a young family to remeber our litte guy…
    *Every prayer that is said out loud in our house starts with thank you for mommy, daddy, Emily, Krystal and Malachi in heaven. Emily knew her brother, but Krystal did not. This simple prayer helps me know he exsisted and is still cheering us on and it gives his two sisters that same HOPE!
    *On Malachi’s Heaven Day we spend it on the Firo River in Concan, TX at a waterfall where we choose to spread his ashes. We play all day with whom ever can come play and we end by saying a prayer for how we are thankful that God gave each of us Malachi. Our little bit of heaven on Earth.
    *On Malachi’s earthly birthday we along with friends and family head to Texas Children’s Hosptial for Malachi’s Monster Mash. We bring along a carnival type party for the kids who are spending Halloween in the hospital. It is very importnat that we do this celebration Halloween Night. Malachi was born on Nov. 1 so by having his party a day early ameks our hearts heal!
    *Thorughout the year we work for a nonprofit organization called BIG Love Cancer Care and our family delivers baskets to other families who are now walking in our shoes. I always wear my Malachi Button just to make others know I understand without having to say anything!
    *When we visit Disney World we stop by a brick that has our son’s name on it. We pray and just talk about the one and only trip he accompanied us on. A nice quiet rest to reflect on how blessed we truly are!
    *I have picutres all over the house that he Malachi…Always remebered, never forgotten, and longed to see!

    Thank you for giving me this time to reflect. God si good in all things!
    Kerri

  21. Sarah permalink
    March 2, 2012

    Mike,
    Thank you for writing these blogs. I just now discovered them and have been reading them…so thirsty for hope. I now not only continue to grieve for my for my brother, Tyler, (and watch my parents grieve) but now….I also grieve for my husband and my two unborn children. So thank you.

    Heather,
    I know you may not ever read this comment. But I am thankful to see your comment on here. I cannot wait to see you in June and to talk about Tyler. I love you. And, I always say there are ten of us too. When asked I say, “I have four brothers and five sisters”. I will forever have four brothers.

  22. Bernita permalink
    March 3, 2012

    Mike, your words of wisdom at Tyler’s funeral have stayed with me. Thank you . I wanted to add that I always tell anyone who asks that I have ten children. Most people don’t ask where they are and what they do but if it comes up I tell them that Tyler lives in Heaven . I don’t push but it is a great opening to share Gods love and mercy. It is also amazing to me how many people it opens the door to. They share their stories of loss and grief. I would encourage everyone to go ahead and include their child who is gone.

  23. November 6, 2013

    I personally tend to go along with all the things that is written in “When
    a Child Dies #8 . . . Memorials | PreacherMike”. Thank you for
    all of the info.Regards,Haley

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