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Family Almanac

A Sad Day, Marked Privately

By Marguerite Kelly
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page C08

Q. The first anniversary of the birth and death of our grandson is approaching, and my daughter and son-in-law don't know how to mark it.

He was a sweet boy, perfect in all ways, but he suffered an accident at birth and lived for only one day.

Now the parents are wondering how to commemorate his short life. There was no service at that time, though their friends arranged a gathering at a nearby park. We joined in a circle, singing, while a candle was lit. My grandsons, then 4 and 6, participated, along with their pals.

This year the parents want to plan something memorable with the family and are looking for suggestions. So far they plan a small dedication ceremony at their new home, which is along a small river, and to place a natural-style rock, etched with his name, near the water. They say they will observe this day every year.

A.First of all, congratulate your daughter and son-in-law for dealing with their grief in such a healthy way.

The death of a child who lived only briefly is as much a tragedy as any other death and it should not be ignored.

If parents hide their sorrow, they will withdraw or get testy or dive into their work or run away from their marriage, as if any of those things could make their pain go away. It's much better for them to celebrate their child's life and to talk about their loss freely and whenever they want.

Having a ceremony in the park to mark his death was appropriate and so is a family event to celebrate his life. If the parents are religious, your daughter could ask a minister to bless the site when it's dedicated and to talk about the baby as their "guardian angel," as some families do. Or the parents could simply talk about the child and what he meant to them, and his big brothers could each read a letter they had written to him or show a picture they painted for him or perform a dance they made up for him.

Your daughter could also bake a cake for this occasion, so everyone could sing "Happy Birthday" and blow out a candle -- the favorite tradition with some parents. Another family celebrates their child's birthday with a five-minute ceremony, where they sign a birthday card, tie it to a balloon, make a silent wish and let the balloon float away. (According to this family, heaven is very high and to the left.) Your daughter can even take a card and a balloon with her if she has to be away on her son's birthday, because she can go through this ritual wherever she is.

You might also suggest that she pick up a small stone from the riverbank, etch it with the baby's name and keep it on a table in the house, so she can put it on the dinner table for a special occasion or simply touch it as she goes by.

Neither she nor her husband should feel bound to follow this or any custom, however. What is right for one family can be wrong for another. They also shouldn't follow any tradition past its natural time. Although your other grandsons may almost forget their little brother's existence 10 years from now, his parents never will. The grief they feel now will lessen, however, and so will their need to express it.

Some parents may tell you that the observance of these traditions could upset the surviving siblings, but that's unlikely. Children need to realize that life is a cycle of birth and death and as necessary as sunshine and rain. Once they know that, they will be able to accept any death better, no matter how much they loved the person who died.

To help the boys accept this reality, you might give them "After You Lose Someone You Love," a book written by three children, Amy, Allie and David Dennison (Free Spirit, $9.95), which will be published next month. The text is drawn from the diaries they kept for two years after their father died.

You might also give your daughter a CD written by country music star George Canyon called "One Good Friend" (Universal South, $13.98), because it includes his recording of "My Name." This song is about a miscarriage -- the most ignored, and perhaps the most poignant, death of all -- and one that may come closest to your daughter's experience. It may help her get through her second year of grief, which can be even more painful than the first.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.comor to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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