Have you ever wondered about including your children in remembering someone who has died?
This past month, our family remembered my sister-in-law, Joyce, who passed away 6 years ago. Many of us had talked about how hard it had been each year, thinking back to a day that began like so many before, but had turned us inside out and raw by the day’s end. We talked about the different ways that we could remember that day. To look to the tender mercies and miracles that came along the way. The sweetness that soothed broken hearts.
As my husband and I talked about how we would approach the anniversary with our own boys, we knew we wanted to include our whole family in remembering Joyce. The oldest two were only toddlers when she passed away, but we wanted them to have her influence in their lives always.
A combination of many influences inspired us to set aside the anniversary week as a week of service for our family. We started off hoping to do something like my friend Valerie of Inner Child Fun did to celebrate her 35th birthday, by honoring Joyce’s memory with an act of service for every year of her life. And it continued to evolve from there.
We had been worried about the anniversary being a very sad week, and we knew that the best way to bring happiness to yourself was to give happiness to others in service. I also felt touched, when I read in Joyce’s journal entries about how much she wanted to get well so she could serve other people. In the middle of her own battle with cancer, her thoughts were about others. I knew this would be the perfect way to honor her, and also teach our boys about her along the way.
So we started off with the intention of doing 25 acts of service over the course of the week, one for each year of her life. We printed out cards to leave with anonymous acts, and I brainstormed a list of things we could do.
But I realized that if we wanted to teach our kids about their aunt, it couldn’t be all about big, orchestrated acts of service. It also had to be about the little things that she was so good at. Listening to someone who wanted to talk. Giving compliments. Sharing a smile. Being a friend. Making people feels special. We talked to our boys about these things and asked them to try to find opportunities to do them, particularly this week.
We soon realized, that by counting all the little acts of kindness, we would be much beyond our goal of 25. By the end of the week, we transferred the fuzzies to a plastic container (per cemetery rules) and left the colorful collection at the graveside in the place of flowers.
I wanted to share some of the acts we did, hopefully as inspiration for a similar project of your own. I didn’t include them all here, as some were more personal than others. But I hope this gets you started.
The surprise benefit of this project was the opportunity with each experience, to relate back to a story about Joyce. Things she enjoyed. Ways she had served. Little things about her personality. It was such a wonderful way to teach our boys about an aunt they were too young remember, but who loved them each so much.
- We started out by making one her favorite cookie recipes and taking it to my husband’s office, where the faculty was staying late for meetings. I loved watching my oldest as he proudly delivered cookies to each office. And I could tell by the way they were so graciously received, that my husband’s co-workers were already in on our purpose.
- My youngest two and I picked up bouquets of flowers on a whim during our regular errands and dropped them by to my husband’s secretary on one day and to the people at the office I work out of on another.
- We worked on a simple fleece blanket the boys could help with (find directions here) and packed it along with some fun items for the child life specialists to spread around at the local children’s hospital.
- My husband spent an evening helping his sister hook up a dishwasher while her husband was out of town. That sort of thing is not uncommon for him to do, being the handy guy he is, but it made me realize that I was missing a big opportunity when I didn’t point out this example to my boys. At bedtime, the boys put in an nice warm fuzzy pom pom for Dad’s late night.
- We dropped off a nice big pot of mums, under the dark of night, on the doorstep of a neighbor’s home where the mother has been battling cancer as well. If you asked the boys about it, you’d think they’d been on a special ops mission.
- Wanting to tap into my boys’ respect for the military, we put together a care package for soldiers in Afghanistan. I was blown away by the simple things they asked for. Toothpaste. Razors. Soap. Being stationed in a remote location, even the basics were hard to come by. It made me even more grateful for the sacrifices they were making. (Adopt a soldier here.)
- We hit the drive-through with the hopes of paying for the person behind us. It took more than one try (no wonder the boys liked this one!) but we finally got lucky when another car pulled in behind us before we paid. My son mentioned that he was worried that they might be buying a lot of food. I told him it didn’t really matter, but I’ll confess I had the same thought. When we pulled up to pay for our own food, I let the worker know we wanted to pay for the person behind us. He looked puzzled. After convincing him he had heard me correctly, he smiled. He pulled up the ticket and it was….$1.06. That’s it?! “OK. Let’s pay for the person behind him too.” $1.06 again. Big day for the dollar menu, apparently! We paid for both and left our little note for the recipients.
- When my oldest found out about the fun we’d had without him, he insisted we do it again. He wanted in on the action (besides, he mentioned, he was hungry). We pulled into another drive through and surprised a minivan with a prepaid dinner. Again, the reaction of the worker at the window was perhaps the best part. That, and the kind wave from the woman behind us as we exited the parking lot.
- The boys gave an apartment-dwelling puppy, who was missing his own rowdy brothers, some wild and crazy exercise in the back yard. (I’m not quite sure who really got the service here — the boys or the dog!)
- I messaged the daughter of the amazing woman who teaches piano to my two oldest boys, to find out about some of her favorite treats. At the next lesson, they surprised her with some of her favorite things. We’re so grateful for what she does for our boys, it was an obvious pick for our service week, but also knowing that she carries that same pain of losing someone so dear to cancer, tucked away in her heart as well, made it more meaningful somehow.
- With parent-teacher conferences that week, we had the boys write a thank you note to their teachers and attached it to a homemade reworking of this concept from Tammy Michelle Designs.
- My preschooler gave out compliments like they were candy. He’s quite the hit with the mom crowd now as he’s complimented almost everyone in our neighborhood on their pretty hair, beautiful faces, or nice voices. (My favorite was when he spontaneously complimented the hair-netted, apron-clad, make-up free food worker at the Costco food court for looking so pretty. I love the way kids remind us to really see the world sometimes!)
- My seven year-old was quick to point out that he was doing service, whenever he chose to end an argument or help his brothers. (I’d be more than happy to continue that!)
- Perhaps one that tugged at my heart the most, was when my nine year-old asked for something to take to his best friend’s house. We had a stash of Rolos, a treat that always reminds me of Joyce. My boy put a handful of them in a plastic bag and wrote a sincere note of gratitude to his friend.
- This was one of my favorite acts of service from the week. It wasn’t orchestrated or planned. It wasn’t perfectly polished with fluff and fonts. It was just simple and sincere. This, and many of the other spontaneous opportunities to serve reminded me of the quote to “Never suppress a generous thought”. It’s something my over-analyzing brain is prone to do. An idea comes, but I put it off until I can find the “right” packaging, the “right” place to pick up the “right” flowers. I tend to procrastinate, hoping for the “right” timing. This was a week of just doing it. Just because. I’d like to do that more often.
- At one point, when my husband asked if we would have enough “warm fuzzies” to meet our goal, I jokingly mentioned that I hadn’t been counting up all the acts of service I did as a mom. Folding laundry, making dinner, changing diapers. I said it somewhat sarcastically, but quickly remembered how much my sister-in-law would have loved to have done all those things for her family. For her son. I remembered how much joy she got from being a mom. Having become a mother in the middle of her battle, motherhood was truly never anything short of a miracle for her. It deserved to be much more than simple drudgery to me. I never did count warm fuzzies for those acts of service, but I did change my perspective. And I hope that change sticks.
The week taught me a lot about service. It taught me a lot about my sister-in-law. I hope it did the same for our kids. I think our whole family would agree, we’re keeping this one as an annual tradition.
How could you use service to make a hard situation better for you and the children you love and teach?