Following the hubbub of Hallowe’en, my son’s class celebrated the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday during which families and friends convene to remember loved ones who have died. With the help of their parents, the kindergarten children were asked to think of someone they would like to honour, draw a picture or bring a photo of them, and bring into classroom a memento that could be placed on a memorial table.
We participated in this school activity with my other son last year, and as before, I was surprised to hear my sons’ responses and realize how aware they are of the deaths that affect our family. I recently lost an elderly aunt, who has always been like a grandmother to me. She lived in California, so we were removed from the ceremonies of death, and even though I talked about her and her passing to the boys, it wasn’t a central feature of our conversations. But she was the person my son chose to remember, and as a memento, we brought along the socks that she knit for him the last time I saw her. (He also thought about our neighbour’s cat, who used to spend a lot of time in our backyard, but who we hadn’t seen for several months, and I had wondered aloud that perhaps she had died as she was quite old. Again, quite amazing what takes hold in the children’s minds when their parents aren’t even sure they are listening.)
The events at school were two-fold. First the kindergarten children were paired with children in an older grade, and together they went into the ecology garden in the school field. There they planted bulbs in honour of the departed, and were encouraged to talk about them while they worked.
We then went convened indoors around the memorial table, from which hung the children’s photos and drawings, and which housed the objects the children brought with them from home. The children were invited to talk about their loved ones and their mementos. The children chatted and told us what they knew. They were not distraught (a child who has lost someone very close could be – I think a child in that situation would need more support and the school would be sensitive to that). Death, and love that often surrounds it, was discussed as the facts of life that they are, from the perspective of the kids. I wasn’t the only parent with tears in my eyes.
I often feel like our culture glorifies youth and fights stridently for life, and needs more rituals by which we can accept death and say goodbye when the time rightly comes. I wish there were annual ceremonies for adults too, so we too could honour, express love, and remember. This is the precise role of our upcoming Remembrance Day; to have personal remembrance days could be just as important. The efforts at commemoration at the boys’ school may just pave the way for similar commemoration efforts in their home. Maybe next year.