Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Family Traditions: Making Memories that Include Your Child

This is my workshop presentation I gave at the Bereaved Parents of the USA Conference 2009, and also at the SHARE conference 2007.

My name is Emily, and my son Gabriel was stillborn at 21 weeks in 2001. For a long time I waited for things to get back to ‘normal’ but I finally realized that I now had a ‘new normal’. I have spent a lot of time online reading message boards (particularly SHARE) and lately discovered blogs.
I think the reason I spend so much time reading other people’s stories is that it helps me to know that I’m not alone in all this- that I’m not crazy for what I feel. I had attended the SHARE conference a few years ago and really had a great experience so I’m glad I had the chance to attend this conference this weekend.

Family Traditions: Making Family Memories that Include Your Baby
By Emily Wilberg presented at SHARE 2007, BP/USA2009


Look at a strong family and you are likely to find one with strong family traditions. Whether it is activities that the family always does, the everyday routines or ways they celebrate holidays and special occasions, these family rituals bring a sense of belonging, familiarity and routine to family members. In strong families, members become more committed to each other when they spend time together and create bonds. Traditions provide a sense of continuity, understanding, connectedness and love that strengthens family closeness. Family traditions are also opportunities for families to have ‘good times” and establish memories. Rituals touch the hearts of family members in a positive way and help members feel good about themselves and each other.

Family traditions reflect relationships between family members and how the family interacts with the community, culture or religion. Traditions help form the story line for a family’s unique history with each generation adding or deleting certain traditions that enhance the family story.

THEY MAKE YOU FEEL PART OF A GROUP: Provides a sense of belonging- a common language, common memories (Story- Christmas morning the kids all line up on the stairs to wait to go down to the tree. They did this when they were together as adults because it just felt like the “right thing to do”)

In times of uncertainty, families can strengthen their emotional defenses and relieve tension by creating special rituals and family times Gives you something in common. Something familiar and predictable in a hectic and ever- changing world. Family bonds are weakened by busy lifestyles. There is a tendency to entropy; to lose energy and coherence over time- like a gas dissipating until it is all but gone. Traditions are the glue to cement you close.

Importance of traditions crosses economic, cultural and religious lines. Christians celebrate Christmas, Muslims celebrate Ramadan, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving and across the globe families celebrate birthdays and anniversaries.



Remember family members that are not with you- (Grandma’s recipe, or family away at college) Your babies were with you just a moment but changed your family forever. They are still part of your family.

Our society doesn’t do a very good job at allowing us to remember. As soon as someone dies we are supposed to get over it, and move on. Some people think we are strange, or morbid. Grief is a very personal thing. You need to do what is right for you and your family. This doesn’t mean it may be right for everyone in your family, too. You have to allow each other the space to grieve as they need to. Invite spouses, grandparents, siblings to participate but give them permission not to if they can’t. Try to not get hurt feelings. On Gabriel’s first angel date my husband did not participate- it was too hard for him.

B. ARE FLEXIBLE: Don’t be rigid- evolve as your family does- as get married, start own families. Establish new traditions as you need. Do what feels right for your family and family members at this time. Your needs may change.

Some times it will feel sad. I think that is ok. Sometimes it may feel gentle, or peaceful, or strengthening. At different times you may need different activities. Sometimes you want a private quiet thing like writing a letter to your baby or buying a balloon and letting it go. Sometimes you are ready for a bigger community thing- March of Dimes or an area sports night

D. INCLUDE SPIRITUAL, EMOTIONAL, PHYSICAL ASPECTS. Some may be solomn, but it is also ok to have fun. Your traditions can include different aspects- physical (walking a labyrinth, March of Dimes, going somewhere special), emotional (attending bereavement conferences or a balloon release), spiritual (attend a mass or religious ceremony)

E. INCLUDE DIFFERENT SENSES: SMELL (scented candles, food), TASTE (food), TOUCH (different textures- sand, water), SOUND (songs), SIGHT (symbols)

G. OCCASIONALLY EVALUATE YOUR TRADITIONS: make a list- any you want to add? Any to get rid of? Have a MODERATE number. Don’t try to do it all. People do so much FOR their family they neglect being WITH their family. The house looks perfect but the people inside are irritable and frustrated from exhaustion. You may want to simplify. Keep the ones that are most important to you at this time.

H. ARE MEANINGFUL: do service as a family, do something together QUALITY TIME, handed down generations. Each year as they are re-enacted warm memories return

I. PHOTOS & STORIES- write it down, my family loves to look at scrapbooks- if you don’t have photos, keep an ongoing journal of ways you celebrate or remember. When you do something in memory of your child, write your thought in a letter to him or her.

IF YOU DON”T HAVE PHOTOS, you can still make ways to remember you baby. I have a few photos of Gabriel, but not ones I often share with just anyone. When we were asked to submit photos for the slideshow tonight I kind of stopped for a minute, but then I remembered my sand photo my sister took for me. She lives on the Windward Shore of Hawaii and there is a beach there designated as a place of ‘quiet reflection’. I love how it turns out- I’ve used that photo when I made a collage of my kids photos. It is a way to include Gabriel in our family photo collage.

I like to do scrapbooks, and on his angel day I take a picture of the sky that day and then I scrapbook that.


A. CONTINUED PARENTING: The first I heard of this was Kara Jones on You still have a connection with your child even though your child has died. You are still a parent even if your child is not with you.

Have a special place for your baby- can be area of your home or garden. One reason I am attending this conference is that SHARE is the only place in the world I am known solely for being Gabriel’s mom. He has brought me many friends I would not have met otherwise. That is my place with him.
Special time of day, week or year- sunrise, full moon. Can be time of day or yearyour baby was born. Sunday candles
Wear Jewelry with special significance
Angel Gardens/ Butterfly Gardens- butterfly bush, stepping stones, painted rocks
Symbols that have special meaning to your family- butterflies, ladybugs
Quotes/ Poems collection- special book, journal or scrapbook
Sponsor A Child (overseas)
Kindness Project- do good deeds in memory of your child
Scrapbooking Your Baby- ongoing scrapbook with your letters to your baby, notes about things you do in their memory, photos of the sky
Family Photos- include your baby with a symbol or stuffed animal


Holidays have rich associations because they were created as a way to honor and celebrate those things that are truly important. We step out of our everyday routines and pause. On these days our connections to others matter above all else.

There is often the sense that someone is missing. Especially difficult are family gatherings and traditional holidays. It is common to feel great loss at the realization that your baby will never experience these holidays and special days with your family. However, it is possible to make some memories that do include your baby. Let’s look at some holidays and everyday things to do to include your baby in your family’s traditions.

Whole first year is full of ‘should have beens’ as you experience milestone dates or holidays. It is very obvious your baby is gone. You can keep their memory close by by remembering them on these dates. There are also ways to remember them everyday in your family activities. Your baby does not need to be forgotten.

Visit cemetery, discuss resurrection
Leave easter eggs at cemetery on other babies graves with a kind word to their parents

Mother’s Day/Father’s Day
Gift from baby
Special jewelry items, bracelets, keychains
Card exchange

ORIGIN Mothers Day was originally intended as a call to unite women against war after the civil war. It was to remember Mothers whos sons had died in the Civil War. 1870 Julia Ward Howe wrote a proclamation as a call for peace. It started as a ceremony of bereavement and then as a movement for peace and action to stop the senseless deaths of children everywhere. The first such Mother's Day was celebrated in Grafton, West Virginia, on May 10, 1908, in the church where the elder Ann Jarvis had taught Sunday School. From there, the custom caught on- spreading eventually to 45 states. In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson declared the first national Mother's Day, as a day for American citizens to show the flag in honor of those mothers whose sons had died in war.

Kara Jones Quote: “Our society can commercialize all they want. Because in my heart of hearts I know the real meaning of this day came from pain, loss, and grief -- the same things I feel on any given Mothers Day. And from now on, when people urge me to celebrate the day, I will tell them this:

I'll celebrate with you as long as you will first mourn with me. It is the combination of the two that lends itself to the true meaning of Mothers Day!”

October- all month long, and particularly Oct 15th
Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month
Tie pink or blue ribbons around trees
Ask local radio and tv stations to have them announce that October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month
Write an article and submit it to your local newspapers.
Sponsor flowers in memory of your baby in a church service or hospital.
Participate in a memory walk or memorial service.
Release butterflies, doves or balloons
Send off a pink or blue balloon with your Angel’s name and/or picture

Instead of Halloween, Day of the Dead
On November 1st in Mexico we celebrate the Day of the Death. Families create altars in memory of their loved ones and place in there pictures, their favorite foods and drinks, flowers. poems. Though the subject matter may be considered morbid from the perspective of some other cultures, celebrants typically approach the Day of the Dead joyfully. The traditional mood is much brighter with emphasis on celebrating and honoring the lives of the deceased, and celebrating the continuation of life; the belief is not that death is the end, but rather the beginning of a new stage in life.

Thanksgiving- (or any family dinner event)
send thankful letters instead of Christmas cards
have a toast to remember all those not sitting at the table with you
leave an empty chair at the table, or place a rose across the place setting at that chair
if it is too painful to attend a big family celebration SKIP IT this year! Do what you need to do

DEC 6 Candlelight Ceremony
Angel of Hope Statue: Candlelight ceremonies at Angel statues around the country. Can find more info at as well as a list of locations.

Located in a quiet, garden setting, Blanchette Park, St. Charles, Missouri is home to the National Share Office Angel of Hope. The angel's face is that of a child, its arms raised as a child waiting to be lifted. In its wing is inscribed the word Hope. The Angel of Hope, an exact replica of the Christmas Box Angel statue, located in Salt Lake City, Utah, stands as a symbol of hope for all parents who have experienced the death of a child.
To honor our children's memories, memorial bricks are being placed around the base of the Angel of Hope statue with separate walkways extending in various directions from the base of the statue. The statue and surrounding area is intended to be a place of peace and healing for all bereaved parents.
The memorial bricks are placed around the Angel of Hope twice a year in a brick dedication ceremony, held in April, before Mother's Day and Father's Day, and in November, in time for the holiday season. (contact SHARE for more info on bricks)

Dec- 2nd Sunday National Children's Memorial Day happens every year on the second Sunday of December and is observed internationally to honor the 80,000 children who die each year.. Families around the world light candles at 7 p.m. in their corresponding time zones. As candles burn down in one time zone, they are lighted in the next, creating a 24-hour wave of light that encircles the globe. This remembrance ceremony provides the world with lit candles for an entire 24 hour period in order to honor the children we have lost, the children who lived and died, and who, even in death, continue to matter.

Ornaments- buy a special one for your baby

Stocking for your baby- ask friends and family to do an act of service in memory of your baby and send you an email. Place the emails in your baby's stocking and open them as gifts on Christmas morning
Angel Giving Tree- buy and donate gifts for children that will not get many
Sunrise Breakfast
Christmas cards that include your baby- use a special punch or sticker in shape of star, butterfly, dragonfly, ladybug



Angelversary n. 1. This word denotes the annual date of a child's death. This day is just as important to a bereaved parent as a birthday, and stillbirth parents are marking both birth and death on the same day. So it is different than a regular birthday. While "anniversary" might work, that often seems to celebratory a word for this kind of day. Angelversary is our answer to describing this most difficult day. (excerpt from Dictionary of Loss)

Some ideas:
watch the sunrise,
thank your doctor and nurses (if applies)
write a letter to your baby
Sky photos- sunrise, or sunset photos
Kindness project- Random Acts of Kindness, leave flowers anonymously
Attend a Mass or other religious events
Buy a brick engraved with your baby’s name (SHARE Angel of Hope statue)
Put an Ad in paper
Balloon release
Butterfly release
Birthday cake- candles
Build a Bear
Stuffed animals in family photos
Write a letter to your baby
Kindness Project: flowers for random people, leave big tip for waitresses, pay for person behind you


Memory Boxes to hospital
Blanket projects- provide blankets to babies
Hospital Bereavement Projects- make gowns
Sporting Event: angelmaxch (Stacy) on SHARE mom to Maxwell Christopher s/b 6/27/03 at 26 weeks It is fairly simple to organize the night. I call the Phillies as soon as group tickets go on sale and reserve about 200 tickets (we usually have about 150 people attend). I put a downpayment on the tickets (it is non-refundable, so I have to be careful about how many I buy! lol). We send out the invitations to everyone we know with a response card and a stamped envelope. We need all of our responses 1 month before the game. I think the hardest part is doing the seating chart -- we try to put our families together and groups of friends together, so it gets a little crazy sometimes (like doing your seating chart for your wedding!!)

March of Dimes
Other ideas: donate rocking chair to NICU, books to library, buy a bench at a garden (butterfly bench)


The jouney of grief is difficult. Be compassionate with yourself and don’t judge yourself or set your expectations too high. Let your grief be what it is, and let yourself be who you are, now with your new normal.

By creating traditions that bring the family closer, parents can strengthen the bond between family members and teach important principles they want their children to understand and live by.

When you start a tradition it is not so important WHAT it is, as long as it has MEANING FOR YOU


Kritta22 said...

As soon as I find out I'm pregnant, I always seem to find out my due date. Within minutes! With a real baby, this is great news. I can plan for what clothes to buy for baby and start daydreaming about summer dresses that are maturity or cute jackets.
With that comes knowing the due date of my baby that died. I celebrate that day. I take it off work. Or now kinda mope around more that day. It's an excuse.
I celebrate that day cuz to be honest, I can't remember the days I had miscarriages. For a full week the days run together. I can tell you the month and that's it.
So I have a yearly mope day on Jan 12, May 25, and Aug 13.

Kritta22 said...

I wanted to share with you how much you helped my world, here in Alaska.
I have a friend that just this week had a miscarriage. I didn't know how to comfort her except to just be with her. Which is what I wanted.
On my way to her house, I stopped and got two balloons and markers. When we went on a walk. At the beginning of the trail, my balloon got poked by a grass stick and popped. but I was helping her so it was okay.
We found a stop to sit and we wrote our hopes on the balloon. She hoped it was a girl . (She has 3 boys.) I hoped that it heard happy sounds in my tummy. She hoped that the baby knew it was loved and that we couldn't wait to hold them in Heaven.
We got a few on there and hers popped too. But it worked out cuz now we have something to put in our journals. We said a prayer and sat and cried for a few.
It was really healing for the two of us.
I just wanted to thank you for running this site. I can't be easy. But you had mentioned the balloon thing some time ago and it stuck with me. So thank you for bring some peace to the hearts in Alaska.

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing all these wonderful ideas and I was surprised by how many I have already done.

Carleigh has a special corner in our garden where we have a small concrete bench, a tablet, and 2 statues. I plan on having an area in our house soon too. I have a couple pieces of jewlery that I can wear. I have a scrapbook for her. I sponsered a child in India in memory of her and done good deeds. I've also gotten a tattoo.

I love the idea of a family photo that includes a memento. I definitely want to do that the next time we have our picture taken.

I would like to get a brick paver for Carleigh at the National Memorial for the Unborn where Jordan has a plaque.

Emily said...

Holly- where is the National Memorial for the Unborn? I have not heard of that. I learn so much from you guys!

Kritta- I'm glad you and your friend were able to do balloons for your babies. I love that you put your hopes on the balloons. And then that they popped- that seems symbolic for me. It helps me to have something for my scrapbook. ((hugs))

Anonymous said...

These are great tips. I'm still trying to get Josh to realize that it would be nice to be remembered on Mother's Day.

Lea said...

Hi Emily,

Just wanted to let you know that I made a pair of Angel Wings for Gabriel. Please have a look at the Memorial Boutique on my blog.

Love to you.

Debby@Just Breathe said...

I'm sorry I haven't read this post.
I wanted to send you a link to check out, I thought this girl may need your help.

Thank you.

Kara Chipoletti Jones of GriefAndCreativity dot com said...

Hey Em, did I thank you for including our Kota work in your presentation?? *Thank you* One of these years sooon I will actually get to one of these conferences with you and get to thank you in person! Awesome, presentation you did for this session -- thank you much for putting all together to share with us here on the blog, too!

日月神教-任我行 said...