On May 1, 1865, former slaves dug up the remains of 257 dead Union soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp outside Charleston, South Carolina. They worked for two weeks to give them a proper burial in gratitude for their sacrifice. Following the burials, 10,000 people celebrated with a parade led by 2800 black children.
This became Memorial Day and established the tradition of putting fresh flowers, wreaths and flags on the graves of those gone before us. This seems like ancient history to children who are more interested in swimming pools and baseball. And yet if we can take just a moment’s time away from these festivities of summer’s beginning, kids may gain some perspective about life.
Most children first experience death when they see a squirrel hit on the road or say goodbye to a beloved pet. Death comes closer as a neighbor or friend dies and is suddenly just not there anymore. Ultimately, children face the loss of someone dearly important to their own lives.
Memorial Day provides a healthy opportunity for children to be assured that people who’ve died are still part of our lives in both memories and the ongoing contributions they made to us.
Rather than feeling bereft that loved ones simply ceased to exist, kids can share stories about lost people and pets. “Do you remember how Sparky liked to sleep under my bed?” Later, they may be able to laugh about the funny stories their grandpa told or remark with longing about how their grandma could make a book come to life when she read aloud.
Some families still decorate graves on Memorial Day, but an alternative is to spend some time remembering with gratitude. It’s a great chance to check in with kids about what they think about death, and how they remember people who have died.
Facing death is a reality of life, and understanding it is a mystery for us all. But giving children an opportunity to talk about it is a great way to promote their healthy thinking. Remembering those who’ve died connects children securely to their past and gives them a framework for thinking about the future.