Kids Need a Ceremony
In times of loss or change, rituals can be comforting to all of us, but especially for children. Yet it is precisely at times of loss and change that rituals are often abandoned—adults become too swamped with managing the accompanying chaos of change that they fail to attend to rituals that could bring peace and grounding. Indeed, rituals take time and forethought and energy, commodities that grow scarce during crisis. It can feel overwhelming to add “orchestrating a ritual” to your to-do’s in challenging times. But I encourage you, for the sake of your children, to consider it.
Our family recently moved from the only house my children had ever known. Despite my efforts to steep myself in research to help kids cope, I had done little in the way of preparing strategies around this major loss for my own children. I was too caught up in the logistics of packing (and the logistics in creating something to help kids cope with major loss!). Finally it dawned on me: my kids need a ceremony! I belatedly packed them all up in the car one evening and made a run to a craft store where we bought a garden stone cement mix from the clearance bin. Score. It didn’t take much time; we mixed the ingredients according to the instructions and each child scrawled their name (or simply made a mark) and left it to dry. One late afternoon a few days later we remembered our work and took our finished stone out to the back garden, picked a spot for it, held hands in a circle, and each took turns saying what we were grateful to the house for giving us. It was a special as if we took months to plan it, and my kids still talk about it months later.
There are enormous benefits to helping your children hold their own age-appropriate, child-centered (and maybe even child-driven) ceremony. Loss and change can make children feel even more out of control than usual. Providing them with a chance to hold a ceremony or ritual promotes their sense of personal agency. Establishing a predictable, clear plan of action is especially important given the changes that inevitably accompany loss. Being able to plan and orchestrate a formal goodbye gives kids a sense of authority when they otherwise feel out of control. A child didn’t have the choice to lose a loved one or to move from their first home, but the child should be in charge of how they get to say goodbye.
At the risk of sounding like a commercial, I want to share that the understanding of the importance of ritual and ceremony drove me to create Kidolences®. Our boxes serve one central purpose: to give children a chance to create their own ceremonies, celebrations and rituals for all kinds of losses. Allow me to explore some core elements of a Kidolences® box to explain how you can help create a child-centered ceremony, even if you decide not to buy one of our boxes:
Frame the experience. Ceremonies create an important frame around events that are out of one’s control. They bind the experience of grief and make a child feel safe and supported. Therefore, the ceremony should be a clear event with a date and time and should be constrained to an amount of time that corresponds to the child’s attention span. Somewhere in the ballpark of 30-minutes is usually good. There should be a program mapped out ahead of time, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Here’s some things you can incorporate into the program:
Plant a seed. Planting a seed is a simple and elegant way to commemorate a passing, and there’s really no way to “mess it up.” This gives children a concrete, hands-on way to participate in a ceremony. It also provides a beautiful exploration of the cycle of life. When the tree sprouts or the flower blooms, it can be celebration of the memory and a reminder of how the deceased live on in our hearts and minds.
Help kids craft their own memorials. A special flag, votive bag, or garden stone decorated by the child gives them a unique and hand-crafted way to participate in memorializing a loved one. During the ceremony, they can place their craft at a special place in a garden or cemetery.
Speak or sing. If the children are old enough, they may want to recite or read an inspiring quote or prayer while placing their craft. Younger children may want to make a wish or utter a blessing. Alternatively, a piece of music or a song may be a beautiful way to express gratitude for a life.
Choose a photo. Let your child look through photos and choose one that is special to them. Frame the photo or give it a prominent spot during the ceremony so that the child may gaze at it. After the ceremony, the child may keep the photo in a special place.
Light a candle. Candles have long been used in ceremonies to represent the light a beloved brought to our lives, and the promise we make to remember our beloved. Depending on your beliefs, they may also represent the light of holy beings or the afterlife. Whatever symbolic interpretation your beliefs lead you to, share that with your child while lighting a candle.
Create a container. Give the child a special keepsake box to decorate and fill with mementos or photographs. After the ceremony, the child may also want to put the items used in the ceremony into the box. This allows children to create their own experience and relationship to the loss; one that can be re-visited as they grow.
Helping kids hold ceremonies (with Kidolences® boxes or otherwise) models a developmentally appropriate, attuned, and affirming response to a child’s experience of loss or change.
How has your family ever held a child-tailored ceremony? Leave a comment below.
Dr. Emily McClatchey is a child psychologist and mother of three young children. She is the founder and creator of Kidolences,® specially-formulated care boxes to help kids manage loss and change. Send your love to a child at www.kidolences.com.