Just as with most other things, we are socialized by those around us to adhere to culturally acceptable behavior during the grief process. We’re all different, and likewise, our reactions to grief can span the gambit from no outward show of emotions to crying, screaming or even anger. When it comes to children, who may have little or no experience dealing with the grief of a loved one, it makes sense that they might respond in ways that don’t adhere to socially accepted norms in the culture.
I recently came across a “Dear Abby” story in which a 4-year-old placed stickers on the hands and face of her deceased grandmother during the wake. Apparently this bothered some of the relatives and the child was removed from the casket, as if she did something wrong.
There were a number of different reader reactions to the child’s action, but it was Abby’s response that I found most troubling. She stated that she felt the child’s placement of stickers on her grandmother’s body was the disrespectful “desecration of a corpse.”
How did the child expressing her love and saying goodbye disrespect or desecrate the grandmother’s body? Just because the child expressed her grief in a way that was foreign to the social norms of some of the adults present doesn’t make that expression “wrong.”
For that matter, how can any sincere expression of grief be “wrong?” The child followed her heart — more adults should do this — and did what felt right in the moment. If at no other time in our lives, we should be free to grieve and express that grief in whatever way it manifests itself upon the loss of a loved one. This chid did absolutely nothing wrong, and from my view, it’s the adults who need to make an adjustment.
A child’s grief doesn’t “follow the rules” of etiquette, nor does it need to — none of our grief needs to.
DEAR ABBY: “Saddened in New Jersey” (Oct. 2) complained that her sister’s 4-year-old daughter put stickers on the hands and face of her deceased grandmother during her wake. Perhaps the child’s mother didn’t anticipate her daughter’s actions. Children need to grieve, too. That said, they also should behave appropriately.
I saw an article about one funeral home with an excellent solution. Before the dearly departed is placed in the casket, the inside fabric, pillow, etc. are removed. The children are then allowed to decorate the uncovered casket walls with farewell messages and drawings. The interior is then “reupholstered” and nothing is visible. The children are told that it is to keep their messages private.
One story was particularly touching — a little boy wanted his mommy to know how much he loved her and for it to be as close to her as possible. He wrote “I love you, Mommy” on the casket pillow that was placed beneath her head. At the service, only he knew about the secret message he had left for his mom for all eternity. — A MOM IN TEXAS
DEAR MOM: Thank you for sharing a clever solution. I felt that the child’s placing of stickers on her grandmother’s body was disrespectful and the mother was wrong to permit it in spite of the grandfather’s expression of disapproval. While I viewed it as a desecration of a corpse, readers felt differently. My newspaper readers comment:
DEAR ABBY: “Saddened” should never have removed the 4-year-old from the casket. It was not her place. The child was giving her grandmother a goodbye gift. If the woman wanted to remove the stickers before the casket was closed, she should have done it after the child left the room.
I have seen many friends and relatives place things in caskets as gifts and remembrances. It is not disrespectful to the deceased, but gives closure and a warm memory to those who are still living.
Putting stickers on Grandma was the child’s way of saying goodbye. A funeral is a celebration of life and no matter what their age, people are entitled to say goodbye in their own way. — MELODY IN NEVADA
DEAR ABBY: If the sticker incident is the worst that can be said about the 4-year-old’s behavior that day, what’s the harm? Had she thrown a tantrum during the service or before placing the stickers, I’d agree that the child should not have been there. But since the behavior took place after “Saddened” made an issue of the stickers, the situation could have been handled more effectively.
All “Saddened” had to do was wait until the service was over, take the funeral director aside privately and ask him to remove the stickers before the deceased was interred. No drama, no scene, no tantrum, and everybody goes home in peace. Funerals, like any other event, are only as stressful as you want them to be. — NO DRAMA, PLEASE
DEAR ABBY: I own the West’s oldest funeral firm and I disagree with your answer. Funerals are about learning that we are mortal. To stand on ceremony when a young child is participating in one of life’s most important lessons misses the point. Memorials are not about formality but humanity. Let the child place those stickers and let everyone learn something from that. — DAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
DEAR ABBY: Our grandchildren love stickers, put them all over themselves and their clothing, and are thrilled if they can share them with me to “wear” for a while. If any of our grandkids are still young enough to want to “decorate” me in my casket when I go, I would hope everyone around me would appreciate the gesture and smile at the loving relationship I had with that child. — GRANDMA OF (ALMOST) 13